Opinion: 'Ag gag' laws suppress animal cruelty whistleblowers
April 30th, 2013
06:15 PM ET
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Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @pshapiro.

Editor's note: So-called "ag gag" bills proposed in states across the country would either require anyone who videotapes, photographs or records incidents of animal cruelty to turn over the evidence to authorities within 24-48 hours or prohibit the making of undercover videos, photographs and sound recordings on farms, depending on local legislation. Proponents say that these laws protect agriculture business. Opponents say they hinder free speech, food safety and animal and worker rights. One such law, HF 589, has already been signed into law in Iowa and makes it illegal for investigative journalists and activists to take jobs at animal facilities for the purpose of recording undercover footage.

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.

Opinion: Blocking 'ag gag' laws may prolong abuse
Opinion: What the 'ag gag' bills mean to my farm
Opinion: Jane Velez-Mitchell – Slaughterhouse video shows USDA needs to clean up its act
5@5 – What consumers can do to improve the lives of farm animals
Farmer in the know: 5 easy ways you can help us help animals

soundoff (190 Responses)
  1. Detroit_Stinks

    We NEED to make sure that ANIMALS are SAFE and clean.

    I DONT CARE if they are hurt.I CARE ABOUT HUMANS!!!! Us HUMANS need to be sure that the meat is sanitary.and we NEED freedom fighters to break the rules are make sure that these PIGS(and I don't mean the animals,YOU know WHO I mean) are operating the WAY it WAS MEANT to BE!

    May 8, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • Laura Johnson

      If you want to know that the meat you purchase to eat is clean, then the concern should be at the level of inspection in the slaughter house. Most farmers ship their animals to a slaughter house where the animals are dispatched and turned into meat for humans. So, an inspector at that facility would be important to make sure the meat is processed in an appropriate manner. The farmers job is to raise healthy animals.

      May 8, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
  2. queenbeeeeme

    Just because animals are used food does not mean we have to abuse them.
    Also, just because man is supposed to be "master" over the animals, does not mean we have to do heinous things to them. Have you ever seen what happens to animals used only for fur coats? It is just horrific. Because of this I refuse to wear real fur.
    Master does not equal abuser. I eat meat but I do not abuse or condone the abuse of animals. There is absolutely no justification for animal abuse when there are so many humane alternatives.

    May 8, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  3. Laura Johnson

    A small farm is not a factory...it is private property. While a slaughter house is more like a factory, a farm is another matter. For instance, I would not want someone even walking onto a dairy farm if I owned one...that is how hoof and mouth disease is spread. Remember when some of the animal rights folks threatened to bring hoof and mouth disease to American farms when there was an outbreak in the UK? I do. Any facility where animals are held, bred, or raised requires some kind of biosecurity. Otherwise, trespassers can introduce disease. Here is just one example: an activist goes onto farm A to make a video. Then that activist goes to farm B to make more video. In the process, the activist brings disease from farm A to farm B...unwittingly of course, but it can happen easily. Viral and bacterial diseases are contracted by horses, pigs, poultry, and just about any live animals. That is how millions of chickens in the seventies contracted the virulent Exotic Newcastle disease...from the service workers, the veterinarians and the food delivery agents. The USDA report indicates that the major cause of the spread of the disease was HUMANS moving from facility to facility...So, one reason farmers and ranchers do not want trespassers on the property is disease prevention! With some poultry facilities, even the workers cannot go on and off the property until the specific group of young chickens have reached the age to be delivered to the processing plant. All feed and equipment is secured when the new group arrives and nobody goes on or off the property until the date that group is dispatched. Biosecurity is an important issue.

    May 4, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • westsidebilltx

      Laura, don't let common sense, facts and actual consideration of animals' health get in the way of smear jobs by animal freaks that see animals as companions rather than just food chain material = which is what animals are meant to be to humans. Abusing animals isn't just stupid it's also unprofitable = but don't tell that to animal freaks. There are a few bad eggs (pun intended!), like any industry, but the good FAR outnumber the bad.

      May 6, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • JGo2

      Shapiro's analogy with the Rutgers incedent cannot be correct; the Rutgers practice was on tax-payer financed property, and if I remember correctly the filming was not done surreptitiously, but by athletic department people.

      May 6, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  4. Jesse Winne

    One particular trainer I can always count on to be abusive has a huge show coming up, so I will keep a close eye on him, when it pops up, blam! Ag-gag told me I have to report it immediately, so I will contact the authorities at that exact moment!

    May 3, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
  5. Jesse Winne

    I am really excited folks, because think about this, as they are pressuring people with AG-GAG bills to report abuse. This is really great opportunity for people who go to horse shows and other public arena's where animals are abused whether behind the scenes or in public, You need to take a pic or video and then immediately call the cops to the shows! We are just regular everyday people not activists, so we go by the rules of their Ag-GAG and you report this immediately! This is the best part, the trainer/rider/owner/abuser is called out at the show, right then on the ag gag terms, and we follow all their rules and we can have the abusive people run out of horse arena's cattle arena's. We no longer have to rely or wait for an activists they are putting the option to save animals in our hands, and they want it immediately. So you see it, record or just simply report it immediately! Win, win, Win! They get what they want, and so do we, they want the abusers to be exposed by this law immediately using the authorities! We will give them what they ask for !

    May 3, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • Travis

      Jesse, you bring up some very viable ideas. We just have to keep in mind that some of what appear as abuses to us and indeed ARE abuses, are actually legal. Make sure you know the laws before you call the authorities. But it certainly is excellent food for thought that I'll pass along.

      May 3, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
      • westsidebilltx

        Travis, people like Jesse have no time or capability of knowing what's legal or not. It's all about "the shot" that makes them famous for 5 seconds – and a YouTube "treasure".

        May 6, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  6. Laura Johnson

    Here is the problem....while there is some abuse at some locations, the majority of farmers and ranchers do not abuse their animals. However, the propaganda about farming and ranching makes it appear that abuse is the norm! This is because those fighting these bills have an agenda of their own...which is largely being ignored by the respondents to this article. What is the agenda of the animal rights organizations, in their very own words??? ARs want to END animal agriculture! Now, they know they cannot go about getting that done just by proposing a law against breeding and slaughtering animals...Nope. They have stated in public venues that their approach is INCREMENTALISM. They will be trying to eliminate animal agriculture step by step...and these abuse videos are just one step in the process. Their goal to accomplish this agenda, as stated in an animal law conference, is 2050. So, folks, let us indeed stop abuse, but in the process, let us also make sure we are not implementing the animal rights agenda. Turning in an abuse video within 24 to 48 hours to officials is reasonable. Who would claim that an abuse video of children should not be turned over asap??

    May 2, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • SMV

      The CEO of the Humane Society of the United States has repeatedly said that they in no way hope to be a vegetarian propaganda machine; many other animal welfare groups have followed suite. Nobody has said EVERY farm abuses animals- many treat their animals superbly. But there are the bad seeds and they need to be rooted out. I work in animal welfare, eat meat and am informed about where it came from. Someone has to look out for the little guy and in this case it is livestock. The farms who are not abusing won't have a problem. The farms who do abuse will have problems and people who have issue with groups trying to stop the disgusting living conditions and abuse of animals before they are placed on the dinner table seem to be only concerned with their own well-being and not that of the people who do care. It won't hurt the average person that somewhere in their food chain a person taped abuse occurring so where is the harm in taping?

      May 3, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
    • Travis

      Laura, for true AR's, the term "incrementalism" is cause for argument. It's definitely not an across the board thing. Some are in favor abolishing the entire food animal system, while others settle for IMPROVED conditions now. Don't get the two mixed up and not everyone shares the same opinion.
      On another note, what is the term for the people who run the CAFO's? Are they ranchers? Farmers? Or in a league of their own?? My impression is that they are the ones largely responsible for many of the abuses.....have the money.....and don't want those abuses exposed. I think they have a bit more political clout than your comparatively small farming operations. Still, abuses happen in all corners of livestock raising. Advocates for change will use every opportunity legally available to put an end to it. Instead of fighting "us", they should be cleaning up their acts. Too, they shouldn't have ALEC doing their dirty work: It makes them even less trustworthy.

      May 3, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  7. Edwin

    It's a crime to know about a murder involving a human and not report it. As far as I'm concerned all they're doing is providing animals with the same right.

    Isn't that what you vegans/veg heads wanted?

    May 2, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Buck

      "turn over the evidence to authorities within 24-48 hours or prohibit the making of undercover videos, photographs and sound recordings on farms" How did you possibly interpret that as a law meant to punish those people that do not report animal cruelty? All it does is give an investigation team a small and unrealistic amount of time to turn in evidence....or it prohibits that evidence entirely in some cases as with Utah.

      May 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
    • Archibald

      Completely false. If you are a private citizen and aren't otherwise required by law to notify the police of a murder, you are under NO legal obligations to report it, or intervene.

      May 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  8. Taylor Lynch

    I am not saying I support or oppose, but these laws do not hinder freedom of speech. Footage will still be allowed, the difference is efficiency. These bills are designed to prevent editing or altercations to footage taken by organizations that try to make things out to be worse than they are. Yes, there are existing cases of animal abuse, that is shameful to the rest of us involved in agriculture. 'Ag-gag' laws separate those who try to make things look worse than they are.
    Getting off on another tangent...where is all this passion when it comes to other suffering humans? So many go without basic care – many more than the number of abused animals. Priorities?

    May 2, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • Buck

      "Footage will still be allowed". Actually, as mentioned in this article, footage isn't allowed in all cases. As it says in the article specifically with Utah, "it’s now a crime in Utah to photographically document someone abusing an animal in a slaughter plant". Please enlighten me how that hasn't removed our freedom to investigate cases of animal cruelty.

      May 2, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • OneOfTheSheep

      Humans can speak up for themselves. The animals can't. Humans have multiple places to turn to for help. Animals have none. Humans are responsible for abuses. Animalls are not. Need I go on?

      May 2, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
  9. Alyssa

    This cruelty cannot continue to be swept under a rug. Instead of try to end the abuse we decide to mask it. Is that the kind of country I want to live in?! I'm disgusted that this law has passed anywhere. Shame shame shame.

    May 2, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • Travis

      We can't just regret the Ag Gag efforts and those who are pushing for these laws. We really need to get angry enough to convey to our legislators that this is taking away our freedom....punishing whistleblowers in the most horrifying ways.....and hiding truth from American consumers. Let the farmers beware of who they hire, that is one way they can "fight" this....it is THEIR freedom to make the right choices (for them) with hiring practices and to leave the rest of us along. It should remain OUR right to expose maltreatment of the animals this country consumes. We are conscientious , decent people who hate injustices. We are NOT "terrorists" which is what the agricultural community has labeled us. I say ENOUGH!!

      May 2, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  10. Travis

    How strange. In my first (and only other) comment, I mentioned a book I just heard about on Dr.Oz by food critic Mark Bittman called "Vegan Before 6" (VB6). I just googled him and see that he is the person who coined the phrase "Ag-Gag". Here's an interesting site for your perusal with updates on the progress (or lack of) on these bills.

    May 2, 2013 at 9:04 am |
  11. Troy

    America the beautiful. Pink sludge anyone?

    May 2, 2013 at 6:26 am |
    • Jack Rivera

      The nature of the business lends itself to radical editing of films and photos to make it look like animal abuse when it is just normal practice. Hey fools, these businesses kill and chop up animals, where is the abuse?

      May 2, 2013 at 8:16 am |
      • Alyssa

        In a country where we can sue for not labeling coffee hot, you believe kicking animals in the head and stomping on them before slaughter is not abuse? We are bogarting all the rights. Why animals can't keep this small amount of hope just sickens me ... and frankly makes me scared for the future.

        May 2, 2013 at 9:12 am |
      • Travis

        Jack, I don't know if you're being facetious or not. After an animal is killed...welll....there is no pain. DURING their short lives we have a moral obligation to eliminate painful procedures and provide them with decent accomodations. Oh, but then, how many businesses today even understand the term "moral"?? Another point: These ag folks KNOW that people will boycott their businesses if the truth is exposed. That is what they invite and bring upon themselves because they CHOOSE to do things the wrong way – inhumane conditions – lack of oversight – indifference to the animals in their care. Not ALL....but too many to make "whistleblowing" a viable way to get the ag people to improve conditions for the animals in their care.

        May 2, 2013 at 9:50 am |
        • Alyssa

          Whoa Travis. Nailed it.

          May 2, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  12. annie keefer

    I don't get it? WHY would you try and suppress whistleblowers again? we're talking about BULLIES – and we're NOT supposed to call attention to ABUSE? who is behind this?

    May 2, 2013 at 6:22 am |
  13. Belseth

    This is to protect factory farms. They want to get rid of videos of the horrific conditions animals are raise under. This isn't about kicking animal videos it's about squeese cages and animals mutilated in the name of profits.

    May 2, 2013 at 4:39 am |
  14. Steveg

    Political lobbying at its absolute worst. Outlawing wistleblowers? Are you effin kidding?

    So, after whistle blowing is outlawed, what next? How are these institutions supposed to be policed?


    May 2, 2013 at 4:08 am |
    • SMV

      Corporate America at it's finest :)

      May 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
  15. Patrick McNurlen

    Who would've guessed that an industry whose central practice is killing would have something to hide? Why would anyone want to silence the screams of torture and death? What would the awakening of an empathetic response from consumers lead to, and what would that mean for animal agribusiness?

    May 2, 2013 at 2:42 am |
  16. Bonnie

    Funny. The majority of those who favor this bill are farmers. Me thinks I smell a biased rat

    May 2, 2013 at 2:23 am |
  17. brian

    I happen to live in Iowa and if I told you what I see on farms you would vomit on your computer.

    May 2, 2013 at 1:20 am |
    • Nancy

      I am from Iowa and the Ag gag law also includes the Iowa puppy mill industry as registered dog breeders fall under the dept. of Ag. It was a sad day when this bill passed.

      May 2, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  18. Sam

    It's pretty incredible what industry will do to hide what is, basically, an institution of cruelty. This is something that no one should support. Keep up the great work, Paul and HSUS!

    May 1, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
  19. Sandra LeVin

    What are the factory farms and slaughter houses hiding? Surely, the absolute grossest, most inhumane conditions imagineable. "If slaughter houses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian."

    May 1, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
    • Jack Rivera

      I've been eating food for 62 years and haven't gotten sick from eating anything.

      May 2, 2013 at 8:17 am |
  20. jesse

    F This!!! Those "farmers" thing they had it bad then. I'm sure much worse will and should come to them. People who abuse animals are worse than whores!

    May 1, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  21. Julia

    I strongly oppose the ag-gag bill, of course. But it is not just an issue of a "bad" government, it is more of an issue of a big business trying to protect its money every which way that is possible. Because of this the most defenseless living beings suffer unimaginably.

    May 1, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  22. jessschira

    I truly believe animal rights organizations serve an important purpose. Even though all of the farmers I know, both large and small, respect their livestock and make the care and well being of the animals their main priority, I also know there are exceptions to the rule. A system of check and balances is needed. I have no problem with the organizations going undercover, and I don't object to them taking videos of animal abuse. I do have a problem with them acting as a policing system and launching attacks. I also have a problem when after investigations that last several months, they can only produce a couple of minutes worth of footage which they post all over the internet. Nor do I understand how someone can stand around, taping, when an animal is getting abused and than continue to work at the facility. After reading both sides of the argument, I support the gag bills.

    May 1, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
  23. Louise

    Oppose ~ for the sake of the animals whose cry for help would otherwise go unheard.

    May 1, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  24. Kat

    I strongly oppose this bill, and I would like to respond to those making the argument that its better to turn the evidence in within 48 hours to protect the animals. Like others have said, I think it's really naive to think that making one report of animal abuse is going to bring about any significant kind of change for the animals.
    Undercover investigations, on the other hand, have been extremely effective. Take for example the footage taken on Sbarboe Egg Farms, which documented horrible abuse and unsanitary conditions. When that was released, McDonalds dropped them as their supplier. Which do you think sends a louder message to the industry that abuse is unacceptable, losing a client like McDonalds or getting a slap on the wrist from local authorities?
    And for those saying that you own farms and feel like if abuse was going on you should be told about it immediately, I would ask you this – Don't you think it's your responsibility to find out if abuse is taking place yourself? If you need to be told about it by an undercover investigator I think that is a major problem.

    May 1, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
    • Kristin

      Well said Kat!

      May 1, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
    • beachmama

      Thank you for pointing this out Kat. How much did we even hear about animal abuse before uncover footage was widely released? Right, rarely. Of course big Ag wants this bill in place – it's about dollars and sense not the animals. The animals are a commodity to corporate animal operations.

      May 2, 2013 at 12:19 am |
  25. jennycx007

    These bills are absurd and just plain wrong. If you are running your company on the straight and narrow, then you should be transparent. The fact that the meat and dairy industry/agribusiness wants to keep the public ignorant of its practices should be a BIG RED FLAG that something is terribly wrong and they are not running things according to any standards. Their only goal is to continue with substandard and/or no guidelines. They want to be above the law and don't want to have to answer to anyone. I'm completely opposed to these disgusting and scary bills!

    May 1, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
  26. Pepper

    You BET I oppose this!!! I am tired of government agencies and politicians continuing to do their best to keep things from us. I want to know so I can make my own choices!

    May 1, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  27. Katie

    Thank you for this piece. It's outrageous that the industry is trying to force these bills into existence.

    May 1, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  28. Sue Hodge

    I oppose. we must stand up for the most abused animals in the world , we must be their voice for the all the pain and cruelity the suffer.

    May 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  29. Deb Spilko

    Great piece!
    You know, regardless of what you think of PETA or eating meat, I cannot for the life of me understand why the American people would let their legislators come up with this awful legislation.
    I can, however, understand why there are politicians who do it... it has to do with being owned by big agriculture and doing the bidding the rightwing bill mill called ALEC.
    Shame on the ag-gag legislators!

    May 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  30. Debbie

    I strongly oppose this bill. We HAVE to do much better for animals in the future than we have done in the past. The public has every right to see exactly what goes on in these factory farms....the animals can't speak up so we have to!

    May 1, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
  31. TMH

    I strongly oppose! the only people who support have something to hide. We need to do better for animals.

    May 1, 2013 at 6:15 pm |
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