WASHINGTON, May 8, 2013 – Many legislatures in states with concentrations of livestock and poultry production have adjourned for the year after debating and occasionally passing legislation to make it illegal for animal rights crusaders to take undercover videos inside production facilities without permission. The widespread effort to make the practice more difficult has spawned a “blogosphere” controversy within the “food movement,” which defines the bills as “ag gag” legislation. It’s likely that the debate won’t fade if legislatures take up similar bills when they reconvene next year.
The term “ag gag” is a misnomer when applied to bills in several states, says Joseph A. Miller, general counsel of Rose Acre Farms, Seymour, Ind., the target of an investigation by the Humane Society of the U.S. in 2010. “None of them prevent the reporting of animal abuse,” he told the Animal Agriculture Alliance’s 12th annual Stakeholders Summit last week in Arlington, Va. (Watch a recording of his talk here.) “Most require such reporting if video is used. That’s why I get upset at the term ‘ag gag’.” Because the laws would mandate prompt disclosure to law enforcement authorities, “‘ag gag’ is exactly what it is not,” he said. The bills typically make it a crime to infiltrate a farm or processing plant under false pretenses and to photograph or film activities within the facility and provide fines or jail.
Miller says that more than 80 undercover videos have been taken at egg, pork, chicken, turkey, beef, dairy, duck and fish facilities since 1988, more of them in Iowa than any other state. Perhaps not accidentally, Iowa’s subsequent “farm protection” law appears to be the strongest of several enacted around the country, he said. Other laws are in Kansas, Montana and North Dakota. “In states that have passed these laws, the undercover videos have stopped,” he said.
In addition to penalties for an individual convicted of a violation, the Iowa statute allows a court to find “vicarious liability” of an organization that conspires with, aids, abets or harbors the individual transgressor. Collecting financial damages from the individual in such a case might be useless, Miller said, because the “volunteer” has few assets. “But under the Iowa law now, I could go after the Humane Society of the U.S. for vicarious liability,” he added.
Miller challenged the typical allegations made by the by “food movement” or “animal welfare” advocates about the wave of legislation at the state level. To their assertion that “big ag” is trying to hide something, he says modern operations have nothing to hide but have a right to privacy. He disagrees with the campaigners’ claim that people should have the right to know how their food is produced. “There is no constitutional right to know where you food comes from,” he said. “You do have a right to correct information, not a right to agenda-driven misinformation and that’s what most of these groups are trying to do.”
While the animal rights movement asserts that livestock and poultry should be allowed to exhibit their natural behaviors, move around freely, have access to the outdoors and to socialize with other animals, Miller says, there is no basis in science to support the belief that such practices reduce stress and produce safer food. “To allow animals outside means pigs wallowing in mud, coming into contact with feces, wildlife and other parasites,” he said “Mud’s not real sterile.”
The evidence? “Sickness is higher in free-range hogs” and salmonella is more prevalent in free-range chickens, he maintains. “In 1940, over half of the hogs had lung or kidney worms. Today, both are extremely rare. Trichinosis has been eradicated. These diseases are gone because of the way we treat our animals,” Miller adds. “The term ‘pecking order’ comes from chickens. “A chicken being pecked to death is a cruel, inhumane way to die.”
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