Remember our exposé on the factory farms, and the legislation designed to keep the public in the dark about them? They're back! It's not just that these bills trample the First Amendment. It's that these bills are designed to keep the filthy, profoundly unsanitary conditions at factory farms - CAFOs, or Confined Animal Feeding Operations - from being exposed to the public. CAFOs are the antithesis of safe and nutritious food. If governments, both federal and state, were truly serious about food safety, they would address the miserable CAFO conditions.
CAFOs are responsible for foodborne illnesses such as salmonella and listeria; are notorious for their use of antibiotics for nontherapeutic uses, and for exacerbating the "superbug" problem in which organisms become increasingly resistant to antibiotics; and ruin rural economies. In addition, there is the inhumane treatment of the animals themselves.
Ag-Gag laws prevent consumers from being informed, and therefore consumers ability to fully choose what they eat.
The current spate of bills are not novel: ten states introduced similar legislation in 2011 - 12, and bills were passed in Iowa, Missouri, and Utah. The rest were defeated by grassroots activists like you. These bills are introduced by legislators who have strong industry financial backing. Industry has the tenacity - and the deep pockets - necessary to keep trying to push these bills through again and again, year after year, if they don't pass the first time.
Last year's bill in Iowa is a good case in point: it's a study in rampant conflicts of interest. Monsanto pushed Iowa's anti-trespassing/Ag-Gag bill because the company has more facilities in Iowa than any other state in the country, and because "crop operations" are also covered by the bills - so Monsanto seed houses, pesticide manufacturing plants, and research facilities in Iowa will be "protected" from hidden cameras or whistleblowers infiltrating their plants.
It's really all about the economics of CAFOs:
- There are approximately 15,000 CAFOs in the US, which raise 50% of all animals used for our food.
- The largest food processors hold the greatest share of the market, so they wield more power, both economic and political.
- CAFOs receive a wide array of subsidies, both direct and indirect, such as crop subsidies on the corn and soybean used to feed CAFO animals. This in turn means more money in the pockets of feed producers like Monsanto.
- Because CAFOs are not held accountable for the environmental and health damage they do, they don't have to worry about those costs, putting more into their pocket. Those costs are absorbed by the public at large.
- There are also the economies of scale: once a farm is automated for a large number of animals, doubling that number does not mean a doubling of costs. Organic costs more to produce - as much as 20% more - than CAFOs and factory farms because they require more labor (no use of dangerous of chemicals), more costly fertilizer, higher labor costs for crop rotation, more money spent on organic certification, slower growing time, greater post-harvest handling costs to avoid cross-contamination, and more spacious (and thus more expensive) living conditions for livestock. And of course they don't receive the aforementioned subsidies.
These Ag-Gag laws are inspired by a model bill called the "Animal and Ecological Animal Terrorism Act" from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC has both powerful corporate members and legislators, making the conflict of interest pretty seamless. ALEC's corporate members are a Who's Who of the Big Food supply chain, from farmers to retailers: Monsanto, Kraft, Walmart, Walgreens, etc.
The intent of the ALEC-modeled bills is to introduce them in many states, sometimes word-for-word. It becomes a systematized process. As the New York Times reported last year, an ALEC membership brochure "boasted that ALEC lawmakers typically introduced more than 1,000 bills based on model legislation each year and passed about 17 percent of them." When ALEC runs with a bill, it has the support necessary to go much further by being introduced in many states simultaneously. It's a sneaky way of legitimizing an idea that benefits only powerful and wealthy companies, not the general public.
Numerous state legislators are members of ALEC; last year, of the sixty legislators who voted in favor of Ag-Gag bills, 23% of them were members of ALEC, as are sponsors of three of the new Ag-Gag bills: Arizona state senator Jeremy Hutchinson and Wyoming state representative Sue Wallis. In 2010 Wallis was the subject of a conflict-of-interest complaint for trying to block legislation that would send stray horses to slaughter when at the same time she was planning to build a horse slaughter plant of her own. Both Wallis and her cosponsor on the Wyoming bill, Ogden Driskill, are both members of Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Driskill accepted contributions from livestock industry as well as Exxon Mobil.
Here's a run-down of all seven state bills:
- SB 13: Makes an "improper animal investigation" by someone who is not a "certified law enforcement officer" a misdemeanor with a potential civil penalty of $5,000.
- SB 14: Makes "interference with livestock or poultry" a misdemeanor. "Interference" is defined as creating a concealed image or sound recording or by applying for employment as part of an undercover investigation.
- SB 373 Makes it unlawful to record agricultural or industrial operations, whether by photograph, film, or video.
- SB 391 Requires the Indiana Board of Animal Health to maintain a registry of persons convicted of recording such operations.
Nebraska LB 204 If a person makes a "false statement" in an employment agreement with the intention of doing an animal facility "economic harm" or doing "serious bodily injury" to someone, criminal violations kick in. If the economic damages are more than $100,000, or there is serious bodily injury, felony charges can be brought. A more serious felony can be brought if economic damages exceed $1 million or if the violation involves the death of another individuals. The bill specifically says that it is not intended to prohibit otherwise lawful, peaceful picketing or to restrict other rights under the First Amendment. Employees who believe animals are neglected or mistreated must make their report within 24 hours of its discovery.
- LB 204: If a person makes a "false statement" in an employment agreement with the intention of doing an animal facility "economic harm" or doing "serious bodily injury" to someone, criminal violations kick in. If the economic damages are more than $100,000, or there is serious bodily injury, felony charges can be brought. A more serious felony can be brought if economic damages exceed $1 million or if the violation involves the death of another individuals. The bill specifically says that it is not intended to prohibit otherwise lawful, peaceful picketing or to restrict other rights under the First Amendment. Employees who believe animals are neglected or mistreated must make their report within 24 hours of its discovery.
- HB 110 Requires that anyone who records cruelty to livestock must report it within 24 hours.
- HB 0126 Makes "knowingly or intentionally" recording the image or sound from an agricultural operation without the consent of the owner or manager is a misdemeanor punishable for up to six months in jail and a $750 fine. Also requires reporting animal abuse within 48 hours, and anyone who makes a good faith effort is immune from civil liability for making a report.