Organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Mercy for Animals say they have stopped attempting to take undercover videos on farms in states that have laws that make this practice illegal. These laws, referred to as “ag gag” laws, have already gone into effect in states such as Iowa and Utah. Several other states are in the process of working to enact similar legislation. Meanwhile, the topic of ag gag laws is getting a lot of media attention, and the opinions about the merits…or lack thereof…of preventing undercover videos from being taken on farms differ widely. As I’ve read blog posts finding fault with these laws coming from within the agricultural community, I keep coming back to what I heard and saw when I attended a Mercy for Animals (MFA) press conference last summer where an on-farm video was “revealed.”
A story on ABC News this year explained that during the debate over the legislation in Utah last year, lawmakers referred to the animal welfare groups as "terrorists" and portrayed them as enemies of farmers. Utah State Representative Mike Noel told ABC, "This is about a group of people who want to put us out of business, make no mistake about it.” When Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed an ag gag bill into law, he said, “If somebody comes on somebody else's property, through fraud or deception or lying, that is a serious violation of people' rights." Animal activist groups say the laws interfere with freedom of speech and they intend to challenge the laws in court. They are also expending great effort at preventing more laws from being passed. As Tennessee’s governor contemplates signing the Animal Cruelty and Abuse Act that was passed by both the Tennessee House and Senate this week, he has had to contend with threats of retaliation tweeted out by celebrity animal activist and vegetarian Carrie Underwood. The legislation would require evidence of animal abuse to be reported to authorities within 48 hours.
National Hog Farmer’s sister publication, Feedstuffs, reported this week that a bill in Nebraska would require reporting abuse within 24-48 hours, and bills in Indiana and Pennsylvania would make it a crime to film or photograph farm animal operations without the consent of the owner. Doesn’t that make a certain amount of sense? If you see abuse, why would you film it? Why wouldn’t you stop it? The U.S. pork and dairy industries recently launched the “See It? Stop It!?” initiative to demand that anyone working on a farm or in a farm setting has an obligation to report animal abuse, neglect, mishandling or harm immediately. I have to believe that the vast majority of reasonable farmers, ranchers and their employees would do just that. As the Center for Food Integrity’s Roxi Beck explains, “Those in agriculture are understandably frustrated by undercover videos. The actions of a few captured on video can taint public perception of the entire livestock community. Taking action to stop abuse demonstrates a genuine commitment to do what’s right for the animals on farms.”
I hear the folks who are asking what do farmers have to hide. I don’t think this debate is so much about what is being hidden, as it is about the motives of those who seek to record these videos in the first place—and it isn’t about helping the animals in any given situation. At the Mercy for Animals press conference in Minneapolis last year, Matt Rice, director of investigations for the activist group, revealed the bottom line about MFA’s overarching goals while answering questions from reporters after showing undercover video recorded at a Christensen Farms pork production facility. He said the main reason the group had waited five months before revealing the undercover video was because they had been working to pressure retailers that worked with the farm into calling for an end to gestation stall use. It sounds a lot like blackmail to me. You can read the article here. In a publically available Tax Form 990, filed by MFA, the group indicates the purpose of the organization is “Vegetarian Outreach. MFA promotes vegetarianism and veganism as a practical way to reduce animal suffering.” When asked during the press conference what MFA would view to be the ideal solution to housing pigs, Rice said, “Ideally animals would not be exploited at all.”
After hearing the reasoning behind the MFA video approach, I would argue that undercover videos are just a tool for activists to exploit a meat-free agenda. Why would strangers be allowed access to your animals if they are not genuinely interested in caring for them and protecting them? Why should people be allowed to trespass on private property with video cameras if they are furthering any agenda at all? Go back and read that first sentence in this blog post. The organizations have stopped taking undercover videos in states where ag gag laws are on the books. It’s a complex debate. What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the Comment section below, or email [email protected].