Hijacked Bills Would Punish Whistleblowers Seeking To Expose Animal Cruelty

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by Kari Nienstedt, Humane Society of the United States

Legislation originally meant to help pets in hoarding situations has been hijacked by the state’s agribusiness industry.

Less than two weeks ago, a bill was rushed through the House Agriculture and Water Committee; this week, a similar bill was rushed through the Senate Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee as a “strike-everything” amendment. These bills would punish whistleblowers seeking to document a pattern of animal cruelty on large factory-style farms. They would also put the primary authority over the investigation of livestock abuse in the hands of an understaffed agency in the state government.

Anti-whistleblower bills are part of a larger national agenda by certain players in the animal agriculture industry. In the past decade, dozens of investigations of factory farms have revealed abusive behavior as well as potentially unsafe animal products entering the nation’s food supply.

Rather than working to prevent problems in the first place, some in the agriculture industry are trying to cover them up (contrast that to our state’s responsible family farmers who are working to increase transparency). The vehicles these unscrupulous companies are using are anti-whistleblower “ag-gag” bills.

Arizona’s ag-gag legislation would threaten to criminalize the actions of people who document misconduct at agribusiness operations. It accomplishes this by forcing whistleblowers to promptly “out” themselves by turning over any photos or video evidence of abuse before a pattern of misconduct can be established. The factory farm industry wants these laws because they can then claim that the cruelty documented was an aberration, leading to negligible, if any, consequences.

If the real intent of this provision was to prevent cruelty, it would make it mandatory for anyone who witnesses cruelty to report it to law enforcement, not just those who have photographic evidence. We’d never force law enforcement to reveal itself immediately upon starting an investigation, and we shouldn’t do that to agricultural whistleblowers, either. Since this language would apply to any abuse of livestock or poultry, it would create numerous legal problems that could hamper criminal investigations.

In 2013, 15 ag-gag bills in 11 states were introduced. Every one of these bills failed to pass because of widespread opposition from public interest groups and voters. Not only did the bills fail, but they quickly became PR nightmares for agribusinesses. In fact, the National Pork Producers Council noted, “[w]e did a study of coverage of ‘ag-gag’ laws that found that 99 percent of the stories about it were negative.” And world-renowned meat industry consultant Temple Grandin, Ph.D., of Colorado State University said that ag-gag bills are “the stupidest thing that ag ever did.”

Objections to these bills also come from civil liberties organizations. Even Tennessee’s attorney general called his state’s ag-gag bill (which is similar to Arizona’s) “constitutionally suspect,” leading to a veto by the state’s Republican governor.

These bills go beyond gagging whistleblowers by removing farm animals from the protections of the general cruelty code and placing them in a new, much weaker, law under the agriculture code. They would also place the final authority over livestock cruelty cases with the Department of Agriculture, an agency that has less than one sworn officer per county in Arizona. The Child Protective Services debacle has already exposed the paltry investigative abilities of state agencies. It’s concerning to put the welfare of all farm animals in the hands of another understaffed agency, in particular an agency tasked with supporting the very industries it would be policing.

This issue has generated tremendous outcry from Arizona residents. More than 100 Arizo­nans showed up at the hearing in the House to voice their opposition to the bill. They showed that they care deeply about farm animals when in 2006 we overwhelmingly passed Proposition 204, which banned keeping veal calves and breeding pigs in cages so small the animals could not even turn around. We are grateful to the sponsors for their desire to crack down on hoarding, but the current bill would hurt more animals than it helps.

Editor’s Note: Ms. Nienstedt wrote this commentary before Rep. Brenda Barton removed the five-day reporting requirement and the limits on local law enforcement from the bill.

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