How State Ag-Gag Laws Could Stop Animal-Cruelty Whistleblowers

Across the nation, the agriculture lobby is pushing legislators to pass bills that would hobble undercover investigations that help prevent abuse.

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In a 2010 image provided by the Humane Society, a cow too sick or injured to walk lies on the ground at a California meatpacking plant. Owners later settled a civil case with the Humane Society and the Justice Department for nearly $500 million. (Associated Press)

Last Thursday, the New Jersey State Assembly voted 60-5 in favor of a bill banning the use of "gestation crates" on factory hog farms. If the state senate ratifies the bill and Governor Chris Christie signs it into law, New Jersey will be the tenth state to have outlawed this controversial factory-farm technology. Having worked at a facility that uses the devices in neighboring Pennsylvania, I am praying for the law to pass.

Gestation crates are widely used by pork producers like Smithfield and Tyson to confine millions of breeding sows in concrete and metal cages barely larger than their own bodies. The system shaves a few cents off of pork prices, but at a much greater cost to the pig. I've seen these intelligent, social animals driven mad by a lifetime of constant pregnancy and extreme confinement. On the farm where I worked in the spring of 2010, it was common to see sows frantically chewing on or banging their heads against the bars of their cage, clear signs of extreme frustration and anxiety.

Pork industry representatives deny that this practice is inhumane. "So our animals can't turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets," remarked a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. "I don't know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around .... The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that's at an all-time high."

As an undercover investigator for the advocacy group Mercy for Animals, I used a hidden camera to take extensive documentation of what I saw over the six weeks I worked at that Pennsylvania factory farm. The state's animal cruelty law exempts any "activity undertaken in a normal agricultural operation," so instead of seeking criminal charges, we turned to the court of public opinion and put our findings on YouTube. That spurred a needed dialogue about how we treat the animals that become our food. Last week's news from New Jersey is a welcome product of that dialogue.

Not everyone is happy with the progress we're making, though. In fact, Pennsylvania is now one of at least half a dozen states considering laws that would make videos like mine illegal.

Iowa and Utah already passed similar laws last year, and legislation is now pending in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, and Tennessee. Other "ag gag" laws, as they're known, were proposed in New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Wyoming but have been put aside for the session. More still are expected to be introduced this year in Minnesota, North Carolina, and Vermont.

Driving this trend is a powerful coalition of agribusiness lobbyists and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. Their goal is to stave off calls for factory farm reform by silencing whistleblowers and stopping the embarrassing product recalls, plant closures, and criminal convictions that often result.

Each anti-whistleblower bill is drafted differently but reaches the same end. Pennsylvania's would criminalize anyone who "records an image of, or sound from [an] agricultural operation" or distributes those recordings on the Internet. Arkansas would make it illegal for civilians to conduct an "improper animal investigation" by "collect[ing] evidence into alleged claims of criminal conduct involving an animal." California, Nebraska, and Tennessee would require anyone who photographs an act of cruelty against farm animals to immediately turn their evidence over to law enforcement, thereby blowing their cover and preventing them from documenting anything beyond an isolated incident. Several of these bills carry the potential for felony penalties -- not only for whistleblowers, but also potentially for advocacy and media organizations that share footage.

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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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