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Ag-Gag Laws Prevent You From Knowing How the Sausage Gets Made

North Carolina is dangerously close to preventing agricultural industry whistleblowers from exposing animal cruelty, unsanitary conditions, and more.
June 3, 2015, 6:00pm
Photo via Flickr user calliope

Update: Both chambers of the North Carolina legislature overrode the governor's veto today. As of 3:42 PM, HB 405 is law.

As we informed you with a wan smile last November, North Carolina's pig farming industry is something of a poop-mired industrial swamp. And that's just the tip of the shitberg.

Pigs are big in North Carolina—very, very big. At any given time, 10 million porkers call the state home, most of them in massive industrial operations run by Smithfield Farms. The North Carolina pork industry employs 12,000 workers on 2,000 farms.

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What happens on those farms often stays on those farms—Smithfield and other large meat producers don't host many open houses. Frequently, the public's information comes from undercover ops like this one by the Humane Society.

But if a hotly debated law makes it through North Carolina's legislature this week (the House votes today), we would lose our ability to peek behind the curtain. Under HB405, surreptitious workplace recording and reporting would be made illegal.

It's considered an "ag-gag" law, similar to dozens proposed in different states over the last few years. In states where this legislation (also dubbed "anti-whistleblower") has passed, activists and journalists have been prosecuted; one notorious case involved a celebrated National Geographic photographer, arrested for snapping photos of a Kansas feedlot.

Though many states have grappled with anti-whistleblower laws, North Carolina is getting special attention. Animal rights activists from around the country have mobilized on the ground there, both because the legislation's scope is especially broad and because it seems to have a decent chance of passing.

Groups like the state Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, and the Poultry Federation have thrown their weight behind HB 405, arguing that food producers have a right to privacy, that whistleblowers muck up their ability to freely conduct business.

On the flip side, recent polls of North Carolina voters have shown that most consumers support undercover farm operations (nationwide polls display similar results). Many states have rejected ag-gag laws, likely due to their unpopularity with voters.

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North Carolina may be an exception, though; the bill already passed with overwhelming support. The governor vetoed it, but the House will decide today whether to override his veto. Chloe Waterman, a member of the ASPCA's government relations team, is on the ground in North Carolina. She worries about today's outcome.

"There's an extremely short timeframe between the initial vote and this one," she says, "and we're extremely outnumbered when it comes to the opposition."

This law would also affect North Carolina's enormous poultry trade, as well as peripheral industries like nursing homes and daycares (the wording is quite broad). It affects what Waterman calls "society's most vulnerable members."

Even on the best days, it's fair to say North Carolina pigs are quite vulnerable. Even the late, great Josh Ozersky (typically a chronicler of pork's myriad delights) once weighed in: "[Smithfield's] factory farm system is abhorrent even to the most torpid and unfeeling sectors of our populace."*

Will North Carolina prevent us from knowing how this harsh system works? We'll soon find out.

*Smithfield could not be reached for comment.