Why Hide the Brutalization of Farm Animals?
It's hard to think of an odder pair of political bedfellows than Mary Matalin, the Republican strategist and admitted red-meat eater, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has done things such as running ads of famous people in the buff to discourage consumers from wearing articles of clothing made from animal products.
No matter, this pairing is a big reason North Carolina's Republican-controlled legislature didn't act on a bill sponsored by the state's industrial farms to make it difficult for whistle-blowers to document and report inhumane treatment of animals. The highlight of their campaign was a video message sponsored by the animal-rights group in which Matalin says, "factory farms keep hitting the snooze button, and instead of fixing the problems, they’re trying to blame the messenger.''
These kinds of laws, sometimes known as ag-gag bills, have been a favorite in states dominated by Republicans and Big Agriculture, including Missouri, Iowa and Utah. All three adopted such legislation in the past year, joining Montana, South Carolina, Kansas, North Dakota and Arkansas. The industry's thinking seems to be: Everything will be fine if we can prevent images of animals undergoing what amounts to torture from being made public.
Most of these laws are driven by farm-industry trade groups and conservative advocacy organizations, including one backed by the Koch family (which just happens to own several large cattle ranches). They tend to have two main features, as North Carolina's proposed legislation did.
First, they prohibit unauthorized filming or distribution of images taken inside farms and slaughterhouses on the grounds that its harms the industry. Films by whistle-blowers have shown workers beating pigs with metal rods, slitting the throats of calves that weren't properly stunned and using forklifts to shove sick cows that can't walk into the processing line at slaughterhouses.
Second, they make it a crime to not report violations of animal-cruelty laws within a day or two. This is a masterpiece of cynicism. Although the stated goal of the reporting requirement is to end animal cruelty as soon as it is observed, the provision has the intended effect of stifling investigations. By giving whistle-blowers no time to accumulate evidence of systematic and routine animal abuse, prosecutors will have trouble building the kind of record needed to bring charges against businesses, managers and employees.
It was just such a detailed dossier that made it possible in 2008 for U.S. Agriculture Department investigators to order the largest recall of beef in U.S. history. The case was built around video tapes made by undercover workers, showing appalling brutality at a California slaughterhouse that was the country's second-largest supplier of ground meat to school-lunch programs.
The problems with the laws may become clear once authorities try to enforce them. Earlier this year, Utah prosecutors invoked the state's new ag-gag law when it accused a woman of filming a slaughterhouse with her smartphone. She obviously didn't have permission to film, as required by the law, but she claimed she was on public property at the time. Embarrassed prosecutors abandoned the case amid a public outcry.
A more serious challenge to these laws may be inevitable once a film is distributed online or broadcast, which under some of the ag-gag laws might amount to defamation. Legal experts say it is difficult to imagine that courts will let free-speech rights be trumped by these laws.
Then again, as bad as the ag-gag laws that have been adopted are, they could have been worse. Many are based on model legislation cooked up by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which gets a big chunk of its funding from the Koch family. The model bill's most distinguishing feature is creating a "terrorist registry" of those convicted of minor charges, such as trespassing on a farm, and requiring anyone with such a record to notify law enforcement officials of their movements.
Of course, ag-gag laws wouldn't be needed if the businesses that raise animals for human consumption abided by existing laws against animal cruelty. And at least some states -- including California, Tennessee, New York and Florida -- have taken the same path as North Carolina, rejecting such laws and recognizing that they are unnecessary and counter-productive.
As for the states that have them in place, they should spend as much energy on enforcing anti-cruelty laws as they do trying to help the farming industry conceal animal abuse.
(James Greiff is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)