We all saw the footage: A Rutgers basketball coach was caught on tape during a team practice hitting, kicking and cursing at his student players. The result: several firings and condemnation from the basketball world and beyond.
Now imagine that rather than condemning the abusive coach, the NCAA instead tried to pass a law criminalizing videotaping team practices.
As absurd as that is, that’s just what big players in animal agriculture are trying to do.
In recent years, whistleblowing exposés by groups like The Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals, and Compassion Over Killing have repeatedly documented inhumane treatment of animals, unsafe working conditions and food safety problems inside of our nation’s factory farms and slaughter plants.
These investigations are helping to shine a bright light on notorious agribusiness industry practices such as confining animals in tiny cages where they can’t even turn around for nearly their entire lives. And the videotape evidence often has even led to meat recalls, slaughter plant shutdowns, criminal convictions, Congressional hearings and even new federal policies.
Yet, as I argued during a CNN debate recently, the meat industry’s response to these exposés hasn’t been to try to prevent these abuses from occurring. Rather, it’s simply been to try to prevent the American people from finding out about them.
As a result of Big Ag’s lobbying efforts, it’s now a crime in Utah to photographically document someone abusing an animal in a slaughter plant. In Iowa, if an agribusiness employer asks applicants if they’re a member of an animal welfare charity and they say no, but actually are - that’s not just grounds for firing; it's a jailable offense.
And the newest iteration of these whistleblower suppression “ag gag” bills is to require that anyone documenting inhumane treatment of farm animals “out” themselves nearly immediately and turn over all their evidence before any pattern of abuse can be possibly be established.
No state has enacted an "ag gag" law in 2013, but agriculture lobbyists in 11 states have tried. In Tennessee, Senate Bill 1248 and House Bill 1191 now sit on Governor Bill Haslam’s desk, having been sponsored by state Rep. Andy Holt - who owns a pig production facility - and passed by the legislature. Virtually every major newspaper in the state has editorialized urging the governor to veto this terrible bill.
Outside the state, too, the Washington Post's editorial board condemned the Tennessee bill, noting, “As you next cut into a steak or crack an egg, ask yourself why an industry that claims it has nothing to hide demands protections afforded to no other.”
You know that an industry has a lot to hide when it wants to make it a crime to document what it’s doing. But just as we’d never stand for allowing abusive coaches to continue mistreating their players behind closed doors, we shouldn’t tolerate allowing the meat industry to operate with even less transparency than it does now.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Shapiro.