How do ‘ag gag’ laws affect farm transparency?


Do you feel that the so-called “ag gag” bills are prohibitive? Will these laws hamper efforts to stop animal cruelty? Does this impede our efforts for transparency in the food systems?

dairy cattle abuse animal cruelty ag gag bills law undercover video mercy for animals
Mercy for Animals is one group frequently collecting, editing, and later releasing footage of animal abuse. Why hold on to the footage? Why not report the abuse immediately?

I will start this off with a disclaimer that I am not very familiar with the legislation being passed. I am not educated in legal issues, nor do I wish do become involved in politics. I could care less about getting tied up in the money and power games. That being said…

There are several critics of bills being passed into law at the state-level across the country. These so-called “ag gag” bills are making headline news for publications like The New York Times. Articles like this Opinion piece, “Open the Slaughterhouses” bring about much support and in return NYT posts Letters to the Editor with the heading “Silencing Witnesses to Animal Abuse“.

What does the threat of undercover video mean to me as a cattle producer or as an employee of a CAFO?

These locations where undercover footage is being obtained are not just “large, corporate factory farms”. These places are potentially the homes and businesses of farming families across the country.

When someone walks into my family’s cattle barn, they are more than welcome. Next to making sure our animals are being taken care of, we are in the business of hosting our customers. If we are not in the middle of feeding, handling, or marketing cattle, we will be glad to entertain questions and even allow reporters and cameras in for a story about what we do. A perfect example of this is last year’s visit from CBS News and numerous visits from local television affiliates.

cbs news drought ag gag food farm transparency
Farmers like my father are willing to talk, answer questions, and show you their farms. You just have to ask.

If those folks walked into our barns and saw an act of animal abuse occurring, they should report it immediately. There’s no need to wait, let it stew, and hope for more “proof” to stir up some dust. There’s no need to edit the footage for content or add a narrative. Report it to the supervisors, owners, or call the authorities. Be done with it and let the criminal system do it’s job. There’s no need to hold to footage for prime spotlight opportunity for yourself.

If those folks walked into our barns with an intent to capture footage, piece it together, and narrate it to depict scenes of animal abuse, we would feel violated; as would our neighbors, friends, and other family businesses like ours. This is what has happened and likely led to an apprehension for many farmers to be more open and transparent to those asking questions.

That fear of being the next target is what I felt one morning working in the Texas feedlots. It was Sunday, so I was splitting time, helping the pen riding crew ride through their cattle for the day, when I saw an unfamiliar black car slowly rolling down the drive a few rows over. The car crept along, driving close to the feed bunks with the back window rolled down half-way, then a camera came out the window.

I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but I knew that there wasn’t any particular reason for someone to be taking pictures of the cattle in our hospital pens. Yes, the cattle looked unhealthy. That’s why they were pulled away from the general population to be monitored and allowed to have free access to water and fresh feed as they recuperated from what was often respiratory illnesses or digestive upset. There was nothing wrong with taking pictures of those cattle, but at the same time I wasn’t sure what reason an unfamiliar car would have to drive up and starting taking photos without stopping to introduce themselves first.

Turns out, one of our cowboys had the day off and his in-laws had come to visit. They were out for a Sunday drive and wanted to see where he worked. It just as easily could have been someone with negative intentions like the many other scenes I had witnessed online. We didn’t want to be the next target of inaccurate propaganda.

I cannot speak from personal experience about slaughterhouses, but can tell you there have been several efforts made in recent years to improve transparency and put in place audit systems to ensure proper animal welfare measures are effective.

The issue here for me isn’t trying to cover up animal abuse. It is allowing those who are not familiar with livestock production, who have motivation to do harm, paint the picture first without making sure the statements are accurate. Farmers like my family are more than happy to walk you through our farms, but first let’s introduce ourselves and find out what you want to learn.

Our country doesn’t need another law telling us how to act behind the gates. We need encouragement for better transparency without harassment from others seeking to place blame and slander for personal gain.

Read another viewpoint on the issue from my friend Carrie Mess, a Wisconsin Dairy farmer.

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15 Comments

  1. Good post Ryan. Coming from a state myself that was in the forefront of this type of legislation, and being a law student I find the issue extremely interesting. It will definitely be interesting to see how other states go about adopting similar pieces of legislation. Unfortunately not only has the media successful skewed the facts about animal welfare, it skewed the facts regarding this type of legislation that was put in place to help protect that very purpose… animal welfare.

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      1. Ryan in your post you ask why do Mercy for Animals hold documentation for weeks or even months.

        Reason in the courts our guys needs to show more than one account of neglect and abuse. Relaying on one shot will NOT make a case stick.. Its NOT that our guys are out to put you out of work its to make sure these criminals are caught and fines stick..

        Think of it as a man stalking your family from across the street you can do much except put a peace bond on the person, but until he breaks into your home and assault your family then the case will stick the more proof of continuing facts will make a case..

        What AG and Farm Bureau needs to do is stop wasting tax payers monies with all these subs and tax breaks like the incentives to breed horses and having the American Tax payers pay for USDA inspectors for foreign own horse slaughter plants some that were NOT even legal to operate in Texas.

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      2. IF groups like MFA were out to collect enough information to ensure prosecution, why do they often release the footage in a manner to garner attention for their fundraising efforts? Why not turn it directly over to law enforcement?

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  2. I like your toughts, Ryan. Utah has a year old Ag Protedtion Act. I am glad we did it. We are fighting groups of people who do not play fair or honestly. I welcome anyone to see what I do. There are times my pen is in need of cleaning, not though so the sheep are jeopardized. There are times they need their feet trimmed, not so they are hurting. There are times I could do more in any area. But, people are welcome because my sheep are spoiled rotten in care. Most producers would say the same thing. I just want to know my sheep and myself are protected from any intrusion that would show anything different than the care they get 24/7.

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    1. Good point there Belva. One piece of the trouble is when undercover folks take months to collect footage, then take narrated snapshots to folks who don’t understand what they are seeing.

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  3. Some years ago, my husband managed a small, 3,000 head feedlot for 22 years in the Baltimore-Washington area. We sold many of our finished cattle to a small, local family-owned firm nearby. (My husband took excellent care of the cattle. He did not even allow anyone to use electric prods on them at any time, even during shipping.) We were also not too far from PETA headquarters. One weekend when there were no cattle in the lots at this particular firm we sold our finished cattle to, PETA sneaked some cattle into the pens there that were in really bad condition, many of them ill, (knowing what I know about PETA from personal experience, they were probably some they had purchased at sales to ‘rescue’ and not taken care of properly) and photographed them being mistreated and under terrible conditions they had set up. They were caught in the act so we know this is true. But they did manage to send some of their photos to the newspapers in the area. These are only some of the tactics organizations like PETA uses.

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    1. Caryl,
      I’m curious if you were able to prosecute PETA or call the police for them trespassing … what was the outcome? I’m interested in animal welfare, but PETA has quite the reputation, don’t they? 😦 Thanks!

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  4. Nice piece, Ryan. I work in communications at a leading agriculture research university. When speaking to the university’s farm managers a few months ago, one of them asked what I thought about the so-called ag-gag laws that are in the works in other states. My answer was simple, “If you, any of your employees or any of the researchers or grad students who have projects on the farm are doing anything that you would be embarrassed or ashamed to have video taped or photographed, stop it right now. Right now.” They all nodded in agreement.

    But the next question was, “how far do some of these potential laws go?” Our farms primary functions are research and teaching. Which means we have video crews and photographers on our farms all the time. Some of the potential legislation bans ALL video taping on ALL farms. I really encourage conveners of those bills to take a close look at their research base and make sure they aren’t tying people’s hands. We have enough red tape at the U already. We don’t need to ask our researchers to fill out reams of paperwork to capture video of their own projects, invite media to our farms or even to invite producers who want to capture a few photos so they can implement practices at home.

    Transparency is key. If we allow people on our farms, or explain to them why they can’t visit them at certain times or in certain areas, we may start to eliminate the perceived need to sneak on farms for “undercover” video. And, unfortunately, we do have some poorly trained farmers and employees out there who are not using the best animal wellbeing practices. Let’s work together to put an end to that.

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    1. Great thoughts Beth! Thanks for the comment.

      Definitely agree, I think it’s the potential over-reach of some of these bills that makes me uncomfortable with them. I’m never for increasing the government’s reach into our daily lives.

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  5. Ryan, here’s the other side of these types of scenarios and believe me, I do understand your concern as a farmer. You don’t want to be put in a situation where someone is creating issues that don’t exist or waiting to pounce for no good reason. But the idea of this inadvertently silencing legit whistle-blowers and honest activists is scary. I don’t know what the answer is, but if you believe the NY Times, good has come from undercover video too:
    “Each video (of abuse) — all shot in the last two years by undercover animal rights activists — drew a swift response: Federal prosecutors in Tennessee charged the horse trainer and other workers, who have pleaded guilty, with violating the Horse Protection Act. Local authorities in Wyoming charged nine farm employees with cruelty to animals. And the egg supplier, which operates in Iowa and other states, lost one of its biggest customers, McDonald’s, which said the video played a part in its decision.”

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    1. I’m not exactly comfortable with these series of bills. I don’t think we should do anything to silence people reporting abuse, but I do see the benefit of requiring reports within 48 hours. There’s no need to drag it out over months. And there’s definitely no reason to do it undercover. It’s not allowed in other industries’ employment, why should it be in agriculture?

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