You may have heard a lot of talk about Idaho recently, and it’s no small potatoes. Idaho’s governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, recently signed into law a controversial anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” bill that punishes those who expose abusive conditions on factory farms. Though Governor Otter claims this law will keep agriculture producers “secure in their property,” we, and countless others concerned about the welfare of animals, are extremely concerned about the greater implications of ag-gag.
In passing this bill, Idaho became the seventh state to enact an ag-gag law. By effectively closing out journalists, investigators, and even the general public from animal production facilities, the agribusiness industry can continue to keep consumers in the dark about where their food is coming from.
We have seen countless instances of abuse on industrial farms, including the recent case of a Wisconsin dairy farm that produces cheese for the frozen pizza brand DiGiorno. Undercover footage taken by Mercy For Animals caught workers at this farm viciously kicking, stabbing, beating, and dragging cows, and the footage led to 11 charges of criminal animal cruelty. Without such footage, we may never have known of these horrors, and because of ag-gag laws, we may never learn of countless other, similar instances.
We’re super puzzled by Perdue’s new ad slogan for its line of antibiotic-free chicken: “Eat like your ancestors.” We’re pretty sure our ancestors wouldn’t even recognize today’s frankenchickens, who grow three times faster than chickens did 60 years ago!
In other pig news, an investigative report published in the National Resource Defense Council’s On Earth magazine revealed that waste from farms is poisoning much of Iowa’s drinking water. Consumers and animal lovers are increasingly wondering whether the “efficiency” of industrial farming is worth the costs.
Recommended reading: The Meat Racket by Christopher Leonard, an exposé of the agriculture industry’s exploitation of farmers and chickens in the name of profit. Read reviews from The Washington Post and NPR.
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Guest blog by Nancy Perry, Senior Vice President of ASPCA Government Relations *Updated 11:00 A.M. Wednesday, January 29*
After months of negotiations, the U.S. House Representatives voted Wednesday to pass the Farm Bill—legislation to set policy for many federal agriculture programs. Thanks to all who lobbied Congress with us, animals can claim important victories on two fronts in this legislation. First, the Farm Bill contains a provision to crack down on animal fighting: gruesome spectacles where gamblers wager on animals who are forced to fight to the death. Second, this legislation protects the integrity of hundreds of state animal protection laws across the country from the grievous threat of the King Amendment. The ASPCA applauds Congress for advancing its crackdown on animal fighters while handing a defeat to animal abusers in the Farm Bill.
The animal fighting language in the Farm Bill establishes the first-ever federal penalties for attending an animal fight and criminalizes bringing a child to one of these heinous events. Reflecting the language of the Animal Fighting Spectator Act (H.R 366 / S. 666), this provision creates liability for the individuals whose illegal wagers and admission fees fuel this cruelty. It also ensures that organizers cannot easily escape prosecution by hiding in the crowd when law enforcement arrives, since now everyone in the crowd will be breaking the law.
The King Amendment, named after its sponsor, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), was an incredible federal power-grab that could have prevented states from enacting many of their own laws regarding the production of any “agricultural products”—a term so broad that it can include farm animals, dogs in puppy mills, and even locally grown fruits and vegetables. The defeat of the King Amendment preserves the historic power of states to pass laws that protect the health and welfare of animals.
After today’s vote in the House, the Farm Bill is headed to the Senate for consideration and passage.
The ASPCA Government Relations team has made passage of the Animal Fighting Spectator Prohibition Act and defeat of the King Amendment top priorities this Congress. We couldn’t have achieved these victories without the members of our Advocacy Brigade, who sent thousands of emails to their Members of Congress about the animal fighting bill and the King Amendment.
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It’s been a big week for pigs! Two major U.S. pork producers announced that they are taking steps to root out one of the cruelest factory farming practices: The use of gestation crates, devices that confine pregnant mother pigs for most of their lives in spaces so small they cannot turn around.
On Tuesday, Smithfield Foods announced it is recommending that all of its contract farmers convert from gestation crates to group housing systems for pregnant sows by 2022. The company offered the incentive of a contract extension to these growers upon completion of the conversion. Smithfield had already committed to phasing gestation crates out of 100% of its company-owned facilities by 2017.
Yesterday another major pork producer, Tyson Foods, sent a letter to its suppliers outlining the company’s new stance that mother pigs should be able to “stand, turn around, lie down and stretch their legs.” Since gestation crates prevent even that degree of movement, this means that future Tyson sow barns will hopefully feature alternative housing systems. The letter also encouraged an end to the practice of killing sick or injured piglets through blunt force trauma and urged the use of pain relief during castration and tail-docking, which factory farms currently perform without using anesthesia. Finally, it urged producers to install cameras in their facilities to improve accountability for the proper handling of animals.
Unfortunately, neither company is requiring these changes from its suppliers. Still, these are important steps in the right direction and send a strong message to consumers, pork producers and the public that immobilizing farm animals is not only inhumane, but also unnecessary. These important announcements leave no doubt that change is possible, and that’s something we can all celebrate!
Suppose I told you that, behind the closed doors of a nearby animal farm, something terrible was going on with the animals: vicious abuse and neglect, atrocious conditions, disease and agonizing death.
You would probably want to expose it, protect the animals and punish the offenders. So would I. But instead of seeing more laws dedicated to curbing such abuse, we’re seeing a rash of state laws designed to keep it secret.
Some of these whistleblower suppression laws—coined “ag-gag” by food writer Mark Bittman—aggressively criminalize first-hand documenting and/or reporting of the day-to-day activities of industrial farms, while doing nothing to contain the abuse. Other approaches are designed to seem animal-friendly, but actually hinder investigators and whistleblowers by requiring reporting of witnessed abuse within such a short and arbitrary period of time that adequate documentation of a pattern of abuse is impossible.
Whatever their approach, these laws audaciously and outrageously hide reckless cruelty and incredible suffering.
The first ag-gag bill of 2014 has already been introduced—right on the heels of a previous one’s defeat—and will be heard in the Corrections and Criminal Law committee on Tuesday at the Indiana State House. If passed, S.B. 101 could make felons out of whistleblowers exposing unethical or illegal activities on industrial farms. A coalition [PDF] of civil liberties, public health, food safety, environmental, food justice, animal welfare, legal, workers’ rights, journalism and First Amendment organizations is calling on the Indiana legislature to reject the bill.
In 2012, ag-gag bills became law in Missouri, Iowa and Utah—joining Montana, North Dakota and Kansas. This “goes against everything this country has stood for since its inception,” wrote one local journalist about an ag-gag bill introduced in Pennsylvania. But the good news is that, of 15 ag-gag bills introduced in 11 states in 2013, none passed.
This pattern of failure should tell you something about the fatal flaws the laws have in common.
Veteran journalist Bill Moyers spoke about ag-gag laws in 2013, pointing out another surprising commonality among these bills in terms of how they were drafted, why, and by whom.
Factory farm owners will tell you they’re meeting a critical consumer need and treating their animals humanely (if so, why do they need protection from truth-tellers?). But if we’ve learned anything about factory farms, it’s that we can’t leave the safety of those animals to chance:
In 2011, Mercy for Animals released a video shot inside a North Carolina turkey factory farm owned by Butterball. The video shows frightened turkeys being violently kicked, thrown hard against the side of a truck and dragged across the floor. The video also shows birds with bloody open wounds, broken bones and diseased eyes.
Another Mercy for Animals investigation in Texas revealed the depraved abuse of calves at a cattle company in the Texas panhandle.
In case after case, whistleblowers are the only things standing between farm animals and violent abuse—and in some cases, between you and contaminated food. Similarly shocking journalistic exposés led directly to the passage of the federal Meat Inspection Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act, and the eventual formation of the federal Food and Drug Administration.
“Videotaping at factory farms wouldn’t be necessary if the industry were properly regulated. But it isn’t,” writes Bittman in his New York Times column. “The biggest problem of all is that we’ve created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane… If you’re raising and killing 10 billion animals every year, some abuse is pretty much guaranteed.”