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Gag Order

With "ag gag" bills, Big Ag seeks to stifle reform

by Karen E. Lange

Inside a North Carolina slaughter plant, an assembly line carrying chickens to their deaths moves with astonishing speed. To keep up, workers wearing biohazard suits throw birds into metal shackles from which they hang upside down.

Sometimes they toss the animals as far as 10 feet. Sometimes, in frustration, they punch them. While live chickens whizz off to have their throats slit, the video cuts to trampled, dying birds lying forgotten on the floor. Then the screen goes black to display a warning: “This may be the last time you’ll see inside a North Carolina factory farm.”

Compassion Over Killing produced the video from undercover footage obtained in April. But exposing such abuse could soon become illegal in North Carolina.

A bill introduced this year in North Carolina is one of many proposed “ag gag” laws introduced in state legislatures around the country the last few years at the behest of the meat, dairy and egg industries. The bills seek to criminalize whistleblowing by making it illegal to take video or photos on factory farms or to seek employment for the purpose of exposing abuse and food safety problems. They also sometimes require mandatory reporting with impossibly short timelines so that whistleblowers must “out” themselves before they can document a pattern of abuse.

The North Carolina bill is the only one introduced in 2015 that’s still alive and could have a major impact on efforts to get farm animals better treatment, says Matt Dominguez, public policy director for the HSUS Farm Animal Protection Campaign. “North Carolina is the one that is the most dangerous because you have millions of animals on factory farms there,” he says.

  • An investigation at a Hallmark slaughter plant in California prompted the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Photo by The HSUS

In addition to animal welfare concerns, ag gag bills block exposure of food safety threats, unsafe working conditions and environmental problems at industrial agricultural operations. They would have prevented The HSUS from uncovering not only the forced cannibalism at Kentucky’s Iron Maiden Hog Farm, but the criminal abuse of pigs at Wyoming Premium Farms and the Hallmark slaughter plant in California sending sick downer cattle into the nation’s school food supply.

“The industry’s response is not to clean up the bad behavior, but rather to make investigations illegal,” says Dominguez. “We show what they’re desperate to hide from the American public.”

The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Knoxville News Sentinel and The Indianapolis Star are among the many newspapers to take stands against these anti-whistleblower bills. And dozens of attempted bills have failed since 2011—thanks in large part to a huge public outcry. Quick action now could move the North Carolina bill into those ranks.

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