Viewpoint

‘Ag-gag’ bills aim to silence critics of cruel animal treatment

May 8, 2013 

In April, California Assembly Bill 343 — an “ag-gag bill” — was pulled by sponsor Jim Patterson (R-Fresno), no doubt as a result of the broad-based opposition from animal welfare advocates, civil liberties groups and labor organizations, among others.

The bill, co-authored by our own Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, was deceptively titled “Animal cruelty: duty to provide documentary evidence.” In fact, the law would have protected animal abusers and concealed unsanitary farming practices from the public. For California, which proved itself a leader in farm animal welfare by overwhelmingly passing Proposition 2 in 2008, this legislation would have been a giant step backward.

A.B. 343 is one of many “ag-gag laws,” a term coined by Mark Bittman of The New York Times to describe bills that have passed in six states since 2012 and have been proposed in five additional states in 2013. These bills, while varying in the penalties they impose, prevent undercover investigators from exposing the inhumane treatment of animals that is an everyday occurrence on factory farms.

Ag-gag legislation is big agriculture’s response to a series of videos released by animal welfare investigators over the past few years portraying pervasive animal cruelty and unsanitary conditions that threaten human health. For example, in 2008 The Humane Society released a video of workers using electric prods to repeatedly shock cows too sick to stand. It led to the recall of 143 million pounds of beef, the largest ever in the United States.

A 2011 video made at family-owned Sparboe Farms showed workers suffocating male chicks in plastic bags and cutting off their beaks. It depicted live hens laying eggs destined for human consumption crammed in tiny cages alongside the rotting corpses of dead hens. As a result of the video, Sparboe Farms lost its largest customer — McDonalds.

Agriculture fought back by passing the first ag-gag legislation in Iowa, which made it a crime for an individual applying for a job not to reveal an association with an animal welfare organization. Ag-gag laws are being introduced and passed in state after state — recently, Tennessee became the latest state to pass such legislation.

A.B. 343, as originally introduced, would have required anyone collecting evidence of abuse to turn it over to law enforcement within 48 hours or be guilty of an infraction. While it sounds supportive of animal welfare, it would have prevented investigators from documenting a pattern of abuse over several weeks and releasing the videos or photographs to the public.

Indeed, supporters of this law openly admit that their primary purpose is to prevent animal welfare groups from exposing animal cruelty. For this reason, an amendment to the bill exempted farmers’ own cameras from the mandate. The point is not to protect animals, but to deprive consumers of the ability to make informed food choices.

In fact, most cases of inhumane treatment of factory animals are perfectly legal. For this reason, farms are far more concerned about the court of pubic opinion than reforming their practices. Yet, in the years since these videos have been released, the public has begun demanding precisely these reforms. To improve animal welfare on our farms, Californians must remain vigilant and allow undercover investigations to continue to expose abusive practices.

The chair of the California Agriculture Committee, Susan Talamantes Eggman, has said that California should lead the nation in farm animal welfare and food safety. She’s right. Instead of writing laws that may prevent Californians from seeing how animals are treated, our representatives, including Katcho Achadjian, should author laws that actually protect farm animals and people who consume farmed foods.

If you agree, I encourage you to write to Achadjian and ask him not to reintroduce A.B. 343 during the next session.

Sarah Spengeman teaches political science at Cuesta College. She earned a master’s degree in political science from the University of Notre Dame and is currently working on a Ph.D., also from Notre Dame.

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