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.

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.

The laws' proponents say that they're needed to protect farmers from "vigilantes" and "vegetarian people who are trying to kill the animal industry." But the backers of these bills seem less concerned about the 3 percent of Americans who are vegan or vegetarian and more concerned about the growing collection of data showing that Americans believe that animals raised for food deserve our empathy and consideration. I believe these animals at least deserve the freedom to be able to stand up, lie down, and turn around comfortably, as the New Jersey law would provide.

While the industry considers this a radical demand, they can do even better than that. Recently, I visited a modern egg farm outside of Eindhoven, Holland, an hour's drive from my family's home in Belgium. This time, I didn't have to hide my animal-rights affiliations or even apply for a job to get in. I just did what the instructions on an egg carton suggested -- I showed up unannounced and asked for a tour.

As one of the owners led me around, I was encouraged by what I saw. Though the facility keeps 30,000 chickens, each bird had space to forage, tree stumps and perches to climb on, and even some sunlight. They didn't have the tips of their beaks cut off, a standard practice for preventing cannibalism in caged facilities. Of course, conditions weren't perfect -- the hens still live in enormous flocks of 5,000 birds, which is stressful for them -- but they were drastically better off than what I'd seen in the United States. By combining modern design with time-honored husbandry practices, the Dutch farm is also able to provide better working conditions and remain competitive with conventional eggs on price.

This is partly because European producers are legally protected from being undercut by less scrupulous competitors. As of this year, all 27 EU member countries have not only banned gestation crates and barren battery cages for egg-laying hens, they also require minimum stocking densities, bedding and housing enrichments, and other meaningful improvements for nearly all farm animals. The EU also helps producers exceed minimum standards by providing cost defrayments, marketing assistance, certification schemes, and training and advisory services to farmers who convert to higher welfare and more sustainable farming systems. Like their counterparts in New Jersey, EU leaders understand that there's no place in our modern food system for such barbaric abuse.

Unfortunately, there is not a single federal law in the U.S. protecting animals from cruelty on factory farms. Most state laws do little better: Over the past two decades, at least 37 states have amended their animal-cruelty laws like Pennsylvania to exempt "common" or "normal" farming practices. Through the Farm Bill, our economic policy also favors factory farmers by subsidizing billions of dollars in feed and equipment costs. These subsidies distort the market in favor of large, industrial operations, while making it virtually impossible for small, sustainable farmers to compete.

Now, in addition to the "ag gag" bills, Indiana and Missouri are considering constitutional amendments that would forbid state legislators from passing any law that interfered with "the right of farmers and ranchers to employ agricultural technology and modern livestock production and ranching practices" - in other words, an injunction on new animal welfare, labor, food safety, and environmental legislation.

Pork and beef lobbyists were also recently able to thwart discussion of a proposed federal bill, endorsed by the Humane Society and egg-industry representatives, that would have created European-style standards for egg-laying hens.

The answer isn't to give more discretion to an already powerful industry and turn scrutiny away from their farms. As someone who's been inside these facilities, I believe lawmakers need to be addressing the pressing animal cruelty, environmental, and public health threats that I and other whistleblowers have repeatedly documented. Instead of trying to shut us up, they should be following the examples of leaders around the world, including in New Jersey, who are beginning to pave a way forward.