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Articles The terrible price of ag-gag laws
The terrible price of ag-gag laws
By Lewis Bollard, NY Daily News
Rather than shutting observers out of slaughterhouses, we should open the doors even wider
When the "pink slime" scandal exploded online last March, Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad called a press conference. But Brandstad and beef industry leaders weren't there to apologize for processing scraps through centrifuges, then spraying American meat with ammonia gas. The event featured officials showing off t-shirts with the slogan "Dude, it's beef!"
After dismissing the public's concerns about "pink slime," agribusiness is now trying to stop the public from learning about practices like this in the first place.
Nationwide, agribusiness is pushing "ag-gag" laws to stop undercover filming at slaughterhouses and on farms. Earlier this month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam courageously vetoed his state's proposed ag-gag law. But six states have already passed such laws, and five more, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina, are still considering them. (A proposed New York ag-gag law died in committee last year.)
These laws are modeled on an "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act" produced by the American Legislative Exchange Council, the group behind voter ID laws and "stand your ground" gun laws.
The laws ban filming at agricultural operations, force independent undercover investigators to disclose their identities, or require them to surrender videos of animal abuse to authorities within 24 or 48 hours. If they don't, they face jail time - Pennsylvania's proposed law would jail investigators for up to 10 years, the same penalty as for sexual assault or involuntary manslaughter.
What's going on in these farms and slaughterhouses that the industry is so worried about the American public seeing? Why are they trying to label investigators using pinhole cameras, or workers filming on their cellphones, "terrorists"?
The answer begins at the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, California. In 2007, a Humane Society investigator went undercover there and filmed "downers," cows too sick or injured to walk, dragged by chains and pushed by forklifts to the kill floor. (The Obama administration has since banned the slaughter of downer cows, which pose a higher risk of having mad cow disease.)
The footage aired on network news and spurred the U.S. Department of Agriculture to announce what was at the time the largest meat recall in U.S. history. But by then it was too late - most of the meat had already been consumed, much of it through the National School Lunch Program.
Abuses like these are all too common in the meat industry. A 2011 Mercy for Animals investigation revealed dead hens left to rot in cages alongside live hens at Sparboe Farms. The footage caused McDonald's to drop its egg supplier to all restaurants west of the Mississippi.
Meanwhile, two studies published last summer found that chickens are routinely fed banned antibiotics, arsenic and even Prozac.
Agribusiness can't defend these practices, so it's trying to hide them. State Sen. David Hinkins (R), who sponsored Utah's law, said it was aimed at the "vegetarian people who are trying to kill the animal industry."
But it's meat eaters, not vegetarians, who have the biggest stake in ensuring a safe meat supply. And if practices are so bad that exposing them will kill the animal industry, isn't that a reason to reform the practices?
Agribusiness has tried this heavy-handed approach before. In 1996, Oprah Winfrey told her viewers that hearing about tainted meat and Mad Cow Disease "has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!" Texan cattlemen promptly sued Winfrey for food libel. But after a two month-long trial in Amarillo, Texas, the jury returned a verdict for Winfrey and millions more Americans learned about meat contamination.
It's time for agribusiness to realize that consumers want more information, not less, about where their meat comes from.
When European consumers learned that food producers had secretly added horsemeat to frozen meals, they were rightly outraged. If agribusiness wants to avoid similar scandals here, it should open its doors wide.
A century ago, legislators took a more proactive approach. After
Upton Sinclair went undercover in Chicago slaughterhouses to reveal food
safety abuses in his book, "The Jungle," President Theodore Roosevelt
sent officials to the slaughterhouses to investigate. Later that year,
Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the nation's first food
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