In the last few years, undercover reports and videos have provided evidence of illegal practices such as soring (chemically burning the feet) of Tennessee walking horses to produce the fashionable high-stepping gait of that breed, beaten and mishandled piglets, and decaying hen carcasses in cages where birds are producing eggs for human consumption. These reports have made clear the level of abuse and suffering experienced by factory-farm and other animals raised within industrial agriculture.
But several state legislatures have sought to make such documentation illegal through agricultural (“ag”) gag laws, or laws that seek in part to criminalize the filming of such industrial agricultural practices. These laws are aimed at prohibiting employees – including undercover journalists, whistleblowers, and animal rights activists – from exposing illegal and cruel operations within factory farms and other similar operations.
In the face of inadequate state and federal government regulation, however, this undercover documentation is critical to ending animal abuse – and protecting humans from food produced in unsanitary conditions.
These undercover reports have led directly to criminal charges and convictions under some state anti-cruelty laws. Most of the operations in question are farms called "concentrated animal feeding operations," which are factories that intensively confine pigs, cows, chickens, and other animals to allow for the most efficient methods of food production. Millions of farm animals often are essentially immobilized for nearly their entire lives – and millions of Americans (the majority, in fact) get their food from these farms.
Ag-gag laws are already in place in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah. A bill is pending in North Carolina; this year alone, bills have been defeated in Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wyoming.
Ag-gag laws seek to prevent the reporting of industrial agricultural practices in a variety of ways, including: banning videography; mandating reporting of animal abuse 24-48 hours after recording (thereby preventing long-term investigations establishing a pattern of abuse); and criminalizing misrepresentations on job applications, such as not disclosing one’s background as a journalist or animal rights activist.
Ag-gag laws also would prevent documentation of routine animal husbandry practices, including intensive confinement, de-beaking and toe-trimming of poultry, and tail docking and castration of cattle without anesthesia. While these practices are legal, they are cruel to animals.
Agricultural industry experts argue that ag-gag laws are necessary to protect their trade secrets, and they believe reporting of routine, legal practices amount to attempts to horrify the public and promote boycotts of meat and egg products. Agricultural businesses suffer economic harm from the actions that result from such press.
Meanwhile, many journalists and animal activists maintain that ag-gag laws violate free speech under the First Amendment as well as eliminate a primary means to expose abuses, facilitate enforcement of animal protection laws, and perhaps expand them further.
Despite having 7,800 inspectors for 6,200 federally inspected establishments including slaughterhouses, the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service has no authority to inspect farms where animals are raised and not slaughtered for cruelty violations. Since 2011, undercover reporting of farm operations has resulted in several state criminal cruelty cases and at least two convictions.
Lurking behind the debate over ag-gag laws is a bigger question: the general social role served by making graphic depictions of the industrial use of animals (that is, pictures of violence) publicly available.
Kelli Ludlum of the American Farm Bureau Federation told The New York Times that while videos of some factory farm practices may be disturbing to a viewer unfamiliar with them, they reflect industry best practices. She likened the response of viewers to that of someone seeing open heart surgery for the first time. “They could be performing a perfect procedure, but you would consider it abhorrent that they were cutting a person open,” she said.
Factory farm defenders argue that these agricultural industry practices also provide a public benefit – cheaper and readily available meat and eggs.
On the other hand, some journalists and animal activists maintain that unlike visually disturbing processes like open-heart surgery, which is intended to help its unconscious recipient, factory farms and other industrial practices harm conscious animals, and it is important that the public know about them.
Almost every undercover operation involving factory farms in recent years has revealed illegal abuses. As a result, perpetrators have been prosecuted for cruelty and facilities shut down. Some consumers are choosing foods from local, smaller, and allegedly more humane farms. In some cases, the cost of these foods may be greater, but if consumers want food from more sustainable, sanitary, and ethical farms, they may have to pay a higher price.
The more people understand the conditions imposed on the animals they consume, the greater the likelihood they will fight for change. This awareness may prompt Americans to change not only where they obtain their meat and egg products, but also how much they consume.
According to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, in 2012, more than 9 billion animals were slaughtered for meat. According to the Humane Society of the US estimates, the average American consumes around 298 pounds of meat and 244 eggs per year. Despite an active animal rights movement and sustainable and local food movements, the meat and egg consumption supported largely by factory farms remains relatively constant.
Factory farms exist to produce this volume of meat at the cheapest price. Eating less meat would reduce the need for the cruelty inherent in these farms.
Most people would not believe their food might come from battered animals that were insane and cannibalistic from confinement so intense they could not turn around. Sometimes a picture – which ag-gag laws would prevent – is indeed worth a thousand words.
Ani B. Satz, Ph.D., J.D., is an associate professor of law, ethics, and public health at Emory University. She teaches and writes in the area of animal law and is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.