Country singer, Carrie Underwood recently tweeted a warning to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Underwood threatened to show up on the Governor’s doorstep if he signed the Animal Cruelty and Abuse bill, which declares that anyone who photographs or films video of acts of animal cruelty must turn their material in to police within 48 hours. If signed into law, Tennessee would join the six other states that currently have Agriculture-gag (Ag-Gag) laws.
Ag-Gag is the term given to legislation that targets undercover investigations of animal operations. There is disagreement over the purpose and impact of these laws. Facilities that raise animals for food and others in the food industry believe the laws protect food producers from the backlash that can arise when the public sees how their food is produced, even when done in a lawful manner. Others see this legislation as an impediment to the public’s ability to obtain information regarding their food supply and an effort by industry to hide animal welfare abuses.
Ag-Gag legislation has taken several different forms. For example, Missouri passed a law very similar to the bill in Tennessee. Missouri’s statute requires that any footage of animal abuse or neglect be turned over to authorities within 24 hours of its recording. Failure to comply with this law is a misdemeanor punishable with up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Animal welfare advocates fear that this timeline will prevent them from properly developing a case against the offending facilities. The Ag-Gag law in Kansas makes it a crime to enter an animal production facility and record operations without the consent of the owner. Iowa has gone even further by criminalizing permissive access to an animal production facility, if the permission was gained under false pretense. Essentially, this Ag-Gag provision is targeted at activists who obtain employment at an animal production facility with the intent of investigating alleged infractions.
Should we be concerned about Ag-Gag laws? The answer is yes. Public health advocates in particular should be concerned with Ag-Gag legislation. Although many people focus on animal welfare implications of Ag-Gag laws, these laws also present a serious food safety issue. Undercover investigations help police the food industry and help promote compliance with food safety standards. In fact the largest meat recall in U.S. history resulted from an undercover video. The investigation in question revealed that the Westland/Hallmark Meat Company was abusing and then processing “downer” cows (animals that are unable to walk). “Downer” cows are not allowed into the food supply because of their increased risk for mad cow disease. There is also a safety risk because these animals are more likely to be contaminated with fecal matter and other disease-causing bacteria.
Whistle blowers play an important role in a food safety system that is chronically under resourced. Animal facility inspections are conducted by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and state food safety authorities. However, the USDA reported, during 2006-2007, that between 10 and 12 percent of inspector and veterinarian positions at poultry, beef and pork slaughterhouses nationwide were vacant. In some areas, the vacancies reached 22 percent. The sheer magnitude of processing capacity in the meat industry compounds the effect of these inspector vacancies; some slaughterhouses in the United States can process between 300 and 400 cows an hour, a rate double that of anywhere else in the world.
The proliferation of Ag-Gag laws could have a chilling effect on the reporting of food safety violations and compromise the integrity of our food system. However, the public health community has a unique opportunity to partner with other advocates. As mentioned earlier, animal welfare groups oppose this legislation. In addition, Ag-Gag laws raise environmental, worker’s rights, and constitutional (free speech) issues. By working together, advocates can better educate their communities about Ag-Gag legislation.
For additional information on this public health challenge, the Network has created an issue brief exploring Ag-Gag legislation.
This blog was prepared by Mathew Swinburne, J.D., staff attorney at the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region at the University of Maryland School Of Law.
The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. The views expressed in this blog do not represent those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.