Taking This Photo Would Be Illegal in Utah

Ag gag laws make it illegal to go undercover in factory farms, like the Humane Society did at this egg farm in Maine.

Jun 7 2016, 5:50pm

A blood spattered egg at a egg farm in Maine. Image: HSUS

Another day, another factory farm with disgusting conditions and inhumane treatment. On Tuesday, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released details on an undercover investigation of a factory egg farm in Maine where dead chickens were left to rot until they mummified, and 4 million birds were each kept in cages smaller in area than a sheet of paper.

But in some parts of the country, the agricultural sector is successfully campaigning for laws that would make it illegal to publicly expose these kind of conditions, and even snapping the photo at the top of this post would be against the law.

Photos and videos show conditions on the egg farm that Paul Shapiro, HSUS's vice president of farm animal protection, called "hideously cruel and inhumane." Chickens are shown living in cramped cages, sometimes injured and caught on rusty wire and unable to reach food or water, and sometimes surrounded by excrement, dead birds, or poisoned rodents.

A chicken is pinned under wire caging at an egg farm in Maine. Image: The Humane Society of the United States

Aside from the animal welfare concerns, these kinds of conditions brew serious health risks, according to Joann Lindenmayer, a veterinarian and public health expert with Humane Society International.

"These are the risk factors that lead to salmonella, mice and flies are known vectors of salmonella," Lindenmayer said during a press conference. "I'm appalled."

This whole narrative isn't anything new. In fact, this exact same egg producer, Hillandale Farms, was the subject of an undercover investigation revealing similar conditions at a location in Pennsylvania just last year. At the time, Hillandale said the conditions at that farm were not representative of its facilities.

Hillandale was also one of a handful of farms that were linked to a widespread salmonella outbreak in 2010, leading the owners to be charged with shipping adulterated food and sentenced to jail. Hillandale Farms put out a statement Tuesday saying it's investigating the facility where the video and photos were shot, and blaming the worker who shot the video for the conditions of the facility.

"The worker who shot the video did not meet Hillandale's standard of care and is no longer employed by us. For example, it is our practice that any mortality be removed from cages within a day," the statement read.

But this is only the most recent case. It seems like undercover evidence of substandard factory farm conditions, animal abuse, and public health risks are published every other month. In response, there's been a continuing debate at the state level over whether or not these types of investigations should be allowed. In many states, laws have been enacted trying to stifle undercover recording, and are dubbed "ag gag" laws by the animal welfare groups that fight them. Right now, six states have some form of ag gag law on the books: Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina, and Utah.

Last year, an ag gag law in Idaho—which made it illegal to go undercover or make any undercover recordings at a farm—was struck down by a federal district judge who deemed it a violation of the First Amendment. Similar legal challenges have been raised by animal welfare groups in other states, including Utah, where a strict ag gag law means even taking a photo on a farm without the owner's permission is a crime.

Proponents of these laws say they protect personal property and prevent inexperienced outsiders from working in farms, but dissidents aren't convinced.

"Rather than cleaning up their acts and trying to prevent the animal abuse that we're uncovering, they want to prevent Americans from finding out about these abuses in the first place," Shapiro said in a press conference Tuesday. "Those types of laws are intended to silence whistle-blowing exposes like this one."