The Ag Gag Laws: Hiding Factory Farm Abuses From Public Scrutiny

A former HSUS investigator details the dangers of HR 589, makes it illegal for investigative reporters to take jobs at factory farms in Iowa.

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Earlier this month, politicians in Iowa bowed to corporate pressure when they passed a law designed to stifle public debate and keep consumers in the dark. Instead of confronting animal cruelty on factory farms, the top egg- and pork-producing state is now in the business of covering it up. As one of the people this new law is designed to silence, I'm concerned that Iowa is shooting the messenger while letting the real criminals go unpunished.

HF 589 (PDF), better known as the "Ag Gag" law, criminalizes investigative journalists and animal protection advocates who take entry-level jobs at factory farms in order to document the rampant food safety and animal welfare abuses within. In recent years, these undercover videos have spurred changes in our food system by showing consumers the disturbing truth about where most of today's meat, eggs, and dairy is produced. Undercover investigations have directly led to America's largest meat recalls, as well as to the closure of several slaughterhouses that had egregiously cruel animal handling practices. Iowa's Ag Gag law -- along with similar bills pending in other states -- illustrates just how desperate these industries are to keep this information from getting out.

The original version of the law would have made it a crime to take, possess, or share pictures of factory farms that were taken without the owner's consent, but the Iowa Attorney General rejected this measure out of First Amendment concerns. As amended, however, the law achieves the same result by making it a crime to give a false statement on an "agricultural production" job application. This lets factory farms and slaughterhouses screen out potential whistleblowers simply by asking on job applications, "Are you affiliated with a news organization, labor union, or animal protection group?"

The Ag Gag laws protect the slaughterhouses that regularly send sick and dying animals into our food supply, and would prevent some of the biggest food safety recalls in U.S. history.

Sound absurd? Two years ago, I had to answer a similar question when I applied to work at the nation's second biggest egg producer, located in Thompson, Iowa. If the Ag Gag law had been in effect then, I might be writing this article from a cell.

GUARDING THE HENHOUSE

As a Humane Society of the United States investigator, I worked undercover at four Iowa egg farms in the winter of 2010. At each facility, I witnessed disturbing trends of extreme animal cruelty and dangerously unsanitary conditions. Millions of haggard, featherless hens languished in crowded, microwave-sized wire cages. Unable to even spread their wings, many were forced to pile atop their dead and rotting cage mates as they laid their eggs.

Every day, I came to work wearing a hidden pinhole camera, using it to film conditions as I went about my chores. Once I quit, the Humane Society released a video of my findings that showed viewers the everyday, routine conditions in modern egg factories. Although nothing I filmed was illegal (since Iowa's anemic animal cruelty law exempts "customary farming practices"), the video was alarming enough to make national headlines.

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Cody Carlson is a writer based in New York and a former investigator for Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States.

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