Image: David Oliver/Flickr
Under the weight of a consistent stream of videos showing abuse and malpractice at slaughterhouses and factory farms, corporate agriculture interests have spent the last few years successfully lobbying to criminalize whistleblowing, via so-called ag-gag bills. This week, Idaho took a step closer to becoming the ninth state to enact an ag-gag law. Tellingly, the sponsor of the bill has likened the documenting of animal abuse to 2600-year-old war tactics.
In 2012, a Mercy for Animals investigation uncovered rampant abuses at an Idaho dairy farm, including employees "stomping on and beating cattle, twisting their tails and using a tractor to drag one animal by its chained neck," as the LA Times put it. The fact that the Times wrote about a farm in Idaho hints at just how big it was; the farm in question, which had about 60,000 head of cattle at the time, was a supplier for both Burger King and In-N-Out, and the story broke during a spate of coverage about industrial farming.
Since then, Idaho's farm lobby have been prodding legislators to take action. The result is Idaho Senate bill 1337, which would criminalize entering, gaining employment at, obtaining records from, or recording audio or video of "agricultural production" by "force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass," and comes with penalties of up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
The result, opponents say, is much harsher restrictions on whistleblowing and reporting of malpractice at industrial farms. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jim Patrick, a Republican, sees things differently. According to an AP report, he "said extremist animal activists were comparable to marauding invaders centuries ago who swarmed into foreign territory and destroyed crops to starve foes into submission."
"This is clear back in the sixth century BC," Patrick said. "This is the way you combat your enemies."
Patrick is thus equating the uncovering of abuse and unsafe practices at industrial farms to an all-out war on the food supply, which is just plain silly. A recent report by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future noted that as meat processing has become faster and more centralized, and as regulations and inspections have fallen, the nation's meat has become dirtier and more heavily medicated. Combined with a decline in livestock biodiversity, the large-scale livestock industries—which is by and large what ag-gag bills are designed to protect—are putting the food supply at risk by virtue of their own actions, not that of whistleblowers.
Sen. Patrick and his allies don't agree, nor do their dairy industry supporters. "We continue to see more ... activist efforts to attack the production and processing of food," Elizabeth Criner, a Northwest Food Processors Association lobbyist, told the AP. "Video footage taken under false pretense then presented out of context spreads quickly and can result in brand damage that is unrecoverable."
"Brand damage," remember, is based on videos that show extreme maltreatment of livestock, so any damage caused by whistleblowers is the fault of farms themselves. If farms really wanted to fight back against alleged skewing of facts by whistleblowers, why wouldn't they instead open their doors to show that everything is clean and regulated? The very existence of ag-gag bills shows that factory farms are bothered by what they are.
Early last week, S1337 sailed through the Agricultural Affairs Committee, and on Friday passed the Idaho Senate with a 23-10 vote. Should the bill pass the state House of Representatives, it will head to Republican Gov. C.L. Otter for a signature. The GOP controls Idaho's House, so odds are good the bill will make it to Otter's desk.