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Gagging Watchdogs in Agriculture Abuse Endangers More than just Animals

Gagging Watchdogs in Agriculture Abuse Endangers More than just Animals

By Jessica Culpepper, Food Safety & Health Attorney

As an organization that stands up for transparency and calling an industry on its wrongful practices, Public Justice has been 100% behind the fight against ag-gag laws.  Ag-gag laws, in case you haven’t heard, are laws that make it illegal to document what’s happening at Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or generally places where animals are raised or confined for food.  Basically, ag-gag laws outlaw undercover investigations at such facilities. 

The undercover investigations at these facilities are crucial.  Despite a purported regulatory presence, abusive practices are common and tolerated.  From throwing piglets to smash their skulls to brutally beating and cursing at cows unable to stand, these investigations are making these commonplace abuses unacceptable at the corporate level.  Bringing the actions into the public eye has resulted in enforcement and changes–and it’s looking like this is the only way these changes are going to be made.

Fifteen of these ag-gag laws were introduced as bills this year, often in the very states where corporations have been caught red handed breaking the law and horrifically abusing animals.  Now a good many groups are standing up to fight the passage of these laws.  Not only because of the important role they play in public policy, but because these laws present worrisome infringements on First Amendment rights.  The issue has also generated an enormous amount of press to date, with a major expose from Rolling Stone and in-depth coverage from New York Times, NPR, and Mother Jones.  This is major progress in the face of an industry that is throwing its entire weight on keeping its internal operations hidden from the public.

This progress is welcome.  We should condemn such behavior and stand up for the treatment of these animals.  We should ensure that undercover investigations are allowed to expose such cruel treatment because it IS happening.  But there is another major issue at stake in protecting undercover investigations at these facilities: food safety. 

Undercover investigations have not only shed light on horrific abuse, but numerous food safety violations that created massive risk to consumers and even school children.  For example, an investigation conducted by the Humane Society of the United States in 2007 at the Hallmark/Westland slaughter plant led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history.  That slaughter plant was under inspection by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.  The animal handlers were forcing injured and diseased cows too sick to stand into the slaughterhouse production line.  Not only were those animals being “egregious[ly]” abused (USDA’s word), but that abuse was leading to a massive influx of diseased meat into the consumer food supply.  This point is often (understandably) overshadowed by the shock of the abuse but should be a major concern if these laws passed.

To that end, on December 18th, Public Justice joined Center for Food Safety’s amicus brief on the recent challenge to Utah’s Ag-Gag Law, Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-112.  This law, like the others, made such crucial investigations illegal.  Our amicus focuses on the importance of these investigations to ensuring meat, dairy, and eggs are produced in sanitary and safe conditions and in such a way that does not spread diseases and food borne illness.

The Hallmark/Westland investigation led to landmark changes to food safety regulations, groundbreaking criminal convictions, and massive civil judgments.  It even led to a U.S. Supreme Court case that we assisted in. Such an outcome demonstrates how critical these investigations are for holding this industry accountable and why we should be fighting to keep them legal.

photo credit: Farm Sanctuary via photopin cc