The Return of Ag-Gag Laws

Bills seeking to criminalize undercover investigations of factory farms have been introduced in 10 states

Like zombies, a series of “ag-gag” bills are back to haunt our food system again. At least 10 bills that seek to criminalize independent, undercover investigations of factory farming facilities have been introduced in state legislatures this year. More might be in the offing.

battery cage chicken Photo by Farm Sanctuary
Egg-laying hens crammed in battery cages at a factory farm. Big Ag doesn’t want the public to see images like these.

In California, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Nebraska and Tennessee the bills require that anyone recording abuse in agricultural or industrial operations turn the evidence over to law enforcement within 24 to 48 hours or face criminal charges. Others, in New Mexico, Arkansas, Indiana, Vermont, and Pennsylvania, make it a crime to film or take photographs of agricultural operations. In Arkansas, legislators are considering making an “improper animal investigation” by someone who is not a “certified law enforcement officer” and lying on a farm job application a misdemeanor.

These copycat bills follow in the footsteps of least 15 similar bills that were proposed in different states between 2011 and 2012. All but two, in Iowa and Utah, were eventually defeated following protests from consumer and animal welfare groups.

In Iowa — where a salmonella outbreak at two large egg producer facilities sickened 1,500 people in 2011 and led to the largest egg recall (over half a billion eggs) in US ever — misrepresenting oneself to gain access to a farming facility is now punishable by up to one year in prison and a $1,500 fine.  In Utah, it’s now a crime to photograph or film farm animals and facilities under “false pretenses” or lie on a farmworker job application.

The return of the anti-whistleblower bills come as no surprise to animal welfare activists. The proposed bills are part of Big Ag’s continuing efforts to stem the flow of undercover videos and photos of the industrial-scale livestock farming operations that have repeatedly exposed unsanitary conditions and inhumane treatment of animals. (Read Shut Up Money, the Journal’s 2012 report on this issue.) Exposés by Mercy for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States, and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) have led to the closure of farming facilities, nationwide meat and egg recalls and, in some cases, criminal convictions.  

Activists say the new legislative efforts aren’t gaining much ground. Of the 10 bills introduced this year, three — in New Mexico, Wyoming and New Hampshire — have already failed. And chances are that the ones in Vermont and Pennsylvania too won’t make it through either.

“Many of the original states that introduced these bills in 2011 and 2012 and failed to pass them haven’t introduced them again. That shows they know the bills are unpopular,” Matthew Dominguez, public policy manager for farm animal protection at the Humane Society, told me. The bills face opposition not just from animal welfare groups, but also food safety outfits like Food and Water Watch,  civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, and from organizations concerned about worker rights.

Dominguez points out that the origins of most of these bills can be traced back to a 2002 model bill called the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act (AETA) that makes it illegal for anyone to enter “an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner.”

The model bill was proposed by the American Legislative Council (ALEC), a conservative think tank that’s known for writing controversial model bills such as the “Stand Your Ground” legislation or laws requiring states to include climate change denial in school curricula. Several of the lawmakers who were pushing ag-gag laws last year have ties with both the agriculture industry and ALEC, says investigative journalist Will Potter, author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege. (Read Potter’s 2012 article making these connections.) “The bills have no fingerprints on them to show whether they are based on ALEC, so you can’t say ALEC is directly involved, but it is definitely part of the larger historical context of this kind of legislation,” Potter says.

Industry representatives defend the bill, saying that farmers need protection from activists who aim to damage their business. But those opposing the bills say the industry lacks adequate oversight. They say law enforcement agencies either don’t have adequate resources to monitor these large-scale concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). There have been cases of USDA inspectors turning a blind eye to animal abuse.

The situation is worse now with federal authorities having to cut back on inspections of meat-production facilities because of the budget sequestration.

(On the environmental pollution side, the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t even have a definitive list of all the CAFOs in the country. Last year the US Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was withdrawing a proposed rule that would have required CAFOs to report basic information on operations that could result in water pollution such as location, number of animals and manure storage and disposal. The proposed rule would have addressed the need for critical information that the agency needs to start cleaning up our waterways and protecting public health. Instead, the EPA said it would try to collect that information from the states — a strategy that has proven to be ineffective.)

Given these conditions, undercover investigations are one of the key ways Americans can learn the real deal about how the food they consume is grown and raised. Ag-gag bills would suppress public access to information about bad farming practices and prevent us from making informed food choices. Which is why we need to oppose them.

“Right now a coalition of groups are working on exposing the bills for what they are and making sure none of these bills are made into law,” Dominguez told me. “We want to call [those supporting the bills] out for their duplicity.”

Check out the Humane Society video below. It shows some of what’s at stake with anti-whistleblower bills.

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