The hidden camera worn by an employee at a Butterball turkey farm in North Carolina recorded workers stomping and kicking birds, throwing them by their necks into metal cages, and beating them with metal bars. The animals had festering wounds on their bodies and eyes. Some writhed in pain on the ground. For three weeks, the employee, an undercover investigator for Mercy For Animals, documented abuse after abuse in the milking barn, which is where semen is manually collected from the toms; the birds have been bred so large and deformed that they can no longer reproduce naturally. After the investigation, the nonprofit turned over the video footage to prosecutors.
Within days, cops prepared to raid—something unheard of when it comes to factory farms. But Butterball had friends in high places, including the government agency in charge of overseeing its operations. The director of Animal Health Programs called a friend at Butterball hoping to thwart the raid.
The tip-off didn’t work. The raid led to national media exposure, the conviction of a top-level Department of Agriculture official for obstruction of justice, and criminal charges against five employees for animal cruelty. Two of the employees have pleaded guilty, marking the first felony conviction for cruelty to factory-farmed birds. On February 22, two more former Butterball employees were found guilty of animal cruelty.
Industrial agriculture executives and lawmakers have responded swiftly to undercover investigations like this one, but not in the ways you might expect. Rather than improving animal welfare, enhancing criminal penalties, or increasing oversight of the industry, there’s a national campaign to criminalize anyone who brings these abuses to light under the guise of protecting the farmers and their food supply from animal- and environment-loving “terrorists.”
“Ag-gag” bills pending in multiple states would rewrite the law in order to prosecute whistleblowers, investigators, and journalists who expose how corporations treat animals, workers, and the environment. The bills criminalize anyone who “records an image or sound” from a factory farm and also include anyone who “uploads, downloads, transfers or otherwise sends recorded images of, or sound from, the agricultural operations over the internet in any medium.”
So far this year, these bills have been introduced in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming. North Carolina, Minnesota, and Vermont are expected to follow any day now. Iowa, Missouri, and Utah have approved them.
“Chances are that if one of these laws had been in place, we would not have been able to get the footage we did,” said Vandhana Bala, general counsel for Mercy for Animals. “We would not have been able to see the government corruption and the illegal activity that is currently being prosecuted if there had been an ag-gag bill in North Carolina.”
Without undercover videos and photos, there's pretty much zero chance you would ever see or hear about abuse of factory-farm animals. They have minimal legal protection during their lives. The federal Animal Welfare Act does not apply to animals raised for food, and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act only applies to farm animals at the time of slaughter. On top of that, the law specifically excludes poultry, which represents 95 percent of land animals killed for food.
Instead, animal-welfare standards are pretty much left up to the states. And in 25 states, all farming methods deemed “customary” are exempt from animal-cruelty statutes. What is “customary”? Whatever the industry decides. Sometimes, it's "customary" to stomp and kick chickens and beat them with metal bars.
And if you think the USDA is going to keep animals even nominally safe, you're wrong. Some factories have USDA inspectors on site—but this has proved to be ineffective. One factory, a meatpacking plant in Chino, California, was honored as a USDA "supplier of the year." But shorlty after, in 2008, an investigation by the Humane Society found workers abusing cattle in all sorts of horrific ways, like pushing sick cows around the factory with forklifts. The cruelty was so bad, the plant was shut down. If it weren't for secret Humane Society videotapes, this "supplier of the year" would've continued pumping out its beef to American consumers. So much for USDA oversite.
"Undercover investigations by dedicated nonprofit organizations," Jonathan Safran Foer pointed out in Eating Animals, "are one of the only meaningful windows the public has into the imperfect day-to-day running of factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.”
The problem (for both consumers and industry defenders) is that these groups are finding stomach-turning practices all over the place. Over the last few years, the ag industry has been rocked by one damning investigation after another. Groups like the Humane Society, PETA, Compassion Over Killing, and Farm Sanctuary have exposed not just rogue criminal activity, but standard industry practices like battery cages and gestation crates.
In California, the Humane Society documented repeated animal-welfare and food-safety violations at Hallmark/Westland, which was the second largest supplier of beef to the National School Lunch Program. Cows too sick to walk were being killed and fed to schoolchildren. The investigation led to the largest meat recall in US history.
More recently in Wyoming, video footage showed workers at a Tyson supplier kicking live piglets and pummeling mother pigs; the film led to criminal charges against nine employees, including two managers. In Pennsylvania, an investigation of Kreider Farms showed decomposing birds packed into cages among the living. Other hens had their heads stuck in cage wire and were left to die.
The exposure has left corporations flailing, unable to find convincing ways to spin hard evidence of industrial farming’s worst practices. PR responses to documentation have ranged from outright denial (Dairy Herd Magazine compared investigations to “hate crimes” against farmers) to indignant justification (a headline in the Vancouver Sun summed it up: “Body slamming piglets to death humane, pork experts say”).
But now—with "ag-gag" legislation—the industry has gone on the offensive by trying to stop the videos before they’re released.
“If you are the pork industry, and your standard practice is keeping female pigs in cages so small they can’t turn around for most of their lives," says Paul Shapiro, who is vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society, "you probably would want to keep that hidden, too.”
The bills aren't identical, but they share common language—sometimes even word for word. And they all criminalize the act of documenting what's going on in factory farms. Meanwhile, Indiana’s bill even includes agriculture like crops and timber production, while Arkansas extends its bill to animal-experimentation laboratories and circuses—most of which occur in public places.
Other states' ag-gag bills focus on whether investigators disclose any ties to animal welfare or environmental groups on job applications. In Nebraska and New Hampshire, they mandate that witnesses report animal mistreatment within a few hours, which would make it impossible for whistleblowers to secure advice and protection, or for them to document a pattern of abuses.
This has become a talking point for industry groups that want the public to believe what they just saw was an isolated incident. “Let’s demonstrate to everyone that we’ve got this covered—we don’t need activists to police us,” wrote Emily Meredith, communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. “We can do it ourselves."
So far, the public targets of ag-gag bills have mostly been animal activists. Senator Joe Seng of Iowa warned of “subversive acts” by “extremist vegans,” and Senator David Hinkins of Utah said his bill was a response to the “the vegetarian people” who “are trying to kill the animal industry.”
But it's not just the "extremist vegans" who risk criminalization—journalists are also at risk.
The National Press Photographers Association has come out in opposition to ag-gag bills because they threaten photojournalists, or anyone with a camera pointed at industry, says Mickey H. Osterreicher, the group’s general counsel.
In the 90s, two reporters for ABC’s Primetime Live posed as employees at Food Lion and used hidden cameras in their wigs to record unsanitary practices. Food Lion sued ABC, arguing that reporters trespassed, misrepresented themselves, and videotaped without permission (all language that appears in current ag-gag bills). ABC eventually prevailed on most of the charges, but only after a lengthy legal battle and an appellate court decision.
Twenty years later, the media landscape has changed significantly. Third parties are stepping up and doing hard-hitting investigations on their own, getting millions of YouTube views, and making national headlines.
Whistleblowers and undercover investigators may not be journalists, but ag-gag bills are certainly a First Amendment issue, the photographers' association says. There are no protections in these bills for journalists who investigate factory farms, and some bills put reporters at risk for merely possessing or distributing the undercover footage that whistleblowers obtained. “It’s just as likely that news will come from someone who is a blogger or citizen journalist,” Osterreicher says, “as it is that it will come from someone who is working for a network or a newspaper.”
Attorneys with animal protection, civil liberties, and workers’ rights groups I spoke with were hesitant to speculate about how many of these bills may become law this session. In some states, the outlook seems pretty grim.
Yet ag-gag supporters have already suffered an unlikely defeat. In Wyoming, PETA enlisted Bob Barker, a lifelong Republican and ardent animal rights activist, to send a letter to lawmakers. The Senate Agriculture Committee recently tabled the bill. Why the change of heart? Sponsors said it received too much negative publicity.
“I think all this will backfire in the end,” says Dan Matthews, senior vice president of PETA.
“People don’t like to be told not to look at something.”
Will Potter is the author of Green Is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege.
Follow Will on Twitter: @will_potter