Undercover investigations of animal abuse and unsanitary farm conditions would be outlawed in eight states, including Iowa and New York, under an expanding effort by legislators who say the exposes malign livestock industries.
Montana, North Dakota and Kansas have already passed “ag gag” laws to thwart whistle-blowers, who have targeted Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN), McDonald’s Corp. (MCD) and Yum! Brands Inc.’s (YUM) KFC chicken suppliers. Iowa and New York are debating similar legislation, as is Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska and Utah.
Measures in those states, backed by Monsanto Co. (MON) and other agriculture companies, would halt activists from using deceptive practices to target producers in the $74 billion-a-year U.S. beef industry, or the $45 billion poultry business, as well as other businesses. Animal-rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States contend food safety will be compromised if abusive and unsanitary practices go unexposed.
“For politicians, it comes across looking like they’re trying to muzzle these groups,” said Wes Jamison, an associate communications professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University in Florida who studies interest-group activism, in an interview. “It’s putting restrictions on citizen ‘gotcha’ journalism.”
Media stories about animal welfare have a “significant, negative” effect on meat demand, especially poultry and pork, according to a 2010 study by economists at Kansas State University and Purdue University in Indiana on covert exposes and news articles.
Efforts by companies such as Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. (CMG) to demand that farmers raise pigs outside or in large enclosures have also prompted changes in the food supply chain. McDonald’s said on Feb. 13 it would require pork suppliers to get rid of gestation pens that animal-rights groups have deemed cruel.
The Humane Society of the United States and Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit that promotes a vegetarian diet, are among the leaders in undercover farm investigations. Their secret surveillance has led to slaughter plant closures and recalls of food that may have posed a public health risk.
“Activists have become more of a factor, coming onto farms under false pretenses and taking video,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, in an interview. “These stories rally opposition and really are a threat to political alliances that support ag.”
The covert investigations have roots in Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, a 1906 novel that brought reforms by raising awareness of conditions at meatpacking plants.
Lawmakers from farm states contend the depictions are misleading and an attempt by extremists to force retailers to drop or pressure their suppliers.
People view the activity as “industrial terrorism,” said Iowa state Representative Annette Sweeney, a Republican and author of gag bill, in an interview. “Some so-called videos put out there are a fundraiser and don’t depict what’s going on within the industry. We cherish our livestock.”
Iowa raises 28 percent of all U.S. pork, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. Sweeney’s bill is backed by St. Louis-based Monsanto, a biotechnology company and the world’s largest seller of seeds; pork producer Iowa Select Farms LLP, the subject of a 2011 undercover investigation, and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
The bills aim to “bring reasonableness” to the debate, said Minnesota Senator Doug Magnus, a Republican from St. Paul and a farmer, who introduced legislation to outlaw undercover video at livestock operations. “We’ve even had folks claiming to represent the Department of Agriculture and Board of Health, and it was absolutely false, to gain access. To have these folks doing this is really disturbing.”
While provisions vary by state, the bills generally aim to make it illegal to tape undercover video at livestock operations or obtain a farm job under false pretenses, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
A proposal introduced last month in Nebraska would require cruel treatment to be reported within 12 hours, preventing those who go undercover of the time it takes to amass evidence, according to animal rights groups.
Some legislative efforts have triggered public backlash and legal questions about whether they impinged on free speech protections. A bill outlawing the taking of images at farms without an owner’s permission failed last month in Florida. Animal-rights groups rallied against it, arguing trespassing laws already address such activity. Opponents also said the measure violated the First Amendment protecting free speech.
“Both the volume and immediacy of videos have increased,” said Palm Beach Atlantic University’s Jamison. “It’s a reaction by ag states to protect their agricultural base.”
Farmers who have adopted practices that look out for animal welfare are frustrated that the videos create a distorted impression of industry practices, said Jamison.
Twenty years ago, such investigations were done to try to change consumer behavior. Now, he said, they are being done to pressure retailers into forcing suppliers to change practices.
An undercover video of “downer” cattle unable to walk at the time of slaughter being kicked and dragged with chains at Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. in Chino, California, led to the 2008 recall of 143 million pounds of beef, the largest beef recall in U.S. history, according to the Agriculture Department. Some of the beef had been earmarked for the federal school lunch program. The documentation by the Humane Society also led to a U.S. ban on the slaughter of downer cattle for food.
Footage of calves being shocked and kicked at Bushway Packing Inc. in Grand Isle, Vermont, in 2009 led to the slaughter plant closing, partly because the USDA suspended inspection services. The footage was taken by a Humane Society of the United States member posing undercover as an employee.
Videos that appear to depict cruelty may not be accurate because they don’t tell the whole story, said Minnesota’s Magnus.
Agriculture interests point to footage released Jan. 30 by the Humane Society of the United States from a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) supplier showing sows with injuries and pigs squealing during castration. In response, the world’s largest retailer, based in Bentonville, Arkansas, said it asked the supplier to begin investigating.
“The video didn’t show any abuse or cruelty,” David Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council (3228907), said in an e-mail. Images of a sow with a protruding bottom, he said, would be normal if she had just given birth.
The video “simply was the Humane Society of the U.S.’s indictment of a system it opposes,” he said.
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