The proliferation of laws that effectively label agriculture whistleblowers “terrorists” are stifling today’s would-be Upton Sinclairs and disrupting the public’s right to know.
In 2012, advocacy group Mercy For Animals released hidden camera footage of recorded episodes of severe animal cruelty at a livestock auction outside of Los Angeles. The footage revealed “downed” animals — sick or injured animals being left without veterinary care, food or water — sick or compromised animals being manhandled onto transport trucks to be sold and slaughtered for human consumption, unethical overcrowding, animals being stomped, kicked or beaten, and other examples revealing a general disregard for the animals’ safety or treatment in their handling. Subsequent investigations by law enforcement led to 21 counts of animal cruelty being tallied against the auction’s owner and seven employees.
A large part of the U.S. meat industry’s food safety compliance is a voluntary process. And as regulatory action is typically reactive — not proactive — activists’ use of hidden cameras has helped to raise awareness of the state of the nation’s meat supply. Investigations, such as Kenneth Kendrick’s hidden camera footage of Peanut Corporation of America, have exposed problems and helped to mitigate the spread of foodborne diseases.
However, such whistleblowing has proven to be a nuisance for the agriculture industry. For example, a 2007 Humane Society hidden video revealed that the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, California, which supplemented the National School Lunch Program, would drag “downed” cows — bovines sick or injured to the point that they cannot move on their own — to the killing floor by forklift. Exposure of this practice led to the largest meat recall in American history.
Similarly, in 2011, Mercy For Animals found that Sparboe Farms — then a supplier of eggs to McDonald’s, Target and Sam’s Club — overcrowded hen cages, left dead hens in pens with live hens still laying eggs for human consumption, de-beaked the hens without the use of painkillers, and regularly suffocated live birds in plastic bags. The international media attention forced McDonald’s and the hatchery’s other major customers to disassociate themselves from the company.
As agriculture represents a major — if not the largest — industrial lobby in many states, the agricultural lobby has found it easier to stop the whistleblowers than to improve operations. The American Legislative Exchange Council drafted the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act based on existing legislation from Kansas, Montana and North Dakota, that explicitly bans interference with the operations of agricultural and plant and animal research facilities — including the theft of animals or the uninvited recording or photographing of the facility.
The act would effectively label anyone a terrorist who attempts to covertly videotape or record anything in an animal research of production facility. That person would then be included on a state-based “terrorist registry” and face criminal penalties. So far, Arkansas, Iowa, Missouri, South Carolina, South Dakota and Utah have passed the model legislation into law, and another 16 have considered the proposal.
Missouri’s law requires that the whistleblower share recorded observations with law enforcement within 24 hours, while Iowa’s does not explicitly ban videotaping.
These so-called “ag-gag” laws threaten to create a level of safety ambiguity with the nation’s meat supply not seen since the publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.”
“When it comes to bringing horrific truths to the public eye, undercover footage and images are often an effective outlet for whistleblowers who otherwise risk retaliation when speaking up,” wrote the Food Integrity Campaign. “Going through ‘proper channels’ to report abuse often results in supervisors intimidating those employees who have made complaints to keep quiet.”
In an undercover investigation of Prince Poultry for Compassion Over Killing, a Compassion Over Killing staffer posing as a college intern was privy to chickens being buried alive, among other atrocities. In a video scene obtained and reported by CNN, the staffer asked a farmhand if a bird should be killed before being placed in a burial pit.
“No, we’re going to drop them in the pit just like they are,” the worker responded. “You dump them in there and then Mother Nature takes care of the rest. You go in there in the summertime, and it smells real nice over there. If you look down in there, it’s like a gravy that’s simmering and squirming.”
The people conducting these investigations argue that the safety and hygiene violations they uncover represent conscious choices on the part of the facilities’ operators that should be made known to the public.
“What we documented is how he is operating his facility, and it’s unfortunate that what we documented is so egregious that we hope that state authorities will get involved and prosecute this case for burying birds alive,” said Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing. “That was his choice in terms of how to operate his facility.”
Ultimately, this situation reflects questions of public health and whether the public has the right to know everything about what it eats.
“When you look at this kind of footage, what you are really seeing is a cauldron that is just producing bacteria that get into the food that ultimately makes its way into your home,” said Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “As a doctor, I would advise any parent who has ever had a sick kid to realize that these illnesses come from somewhere.
“Very often they come from the fact that animals are abused and are sick on farms, and we didn’t realize that we were bringing that disease into our homes, threatening our own family.”