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Big ag wants to silence you

Factory-farming proponents try deceptive tactics to hide cruelty and mislead voters

All Animals magazine, January/February 2017

by Kelly Madrone

Photo illustration by Shaina Lieberman/The HSUS/Elena Elisseeva/Shutterstock.

What Dean Wyatt witnessed at an Oklahoma slaughterhouse in 2007 was heinous—pigs still conscious and struggling during slaughter, being beaten during unloading and fallen pigs trampled by the others while workers prodded them to move faster. As a public health veterinarian for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, Wyatt reported the extreme violations of animal welfare and food safety standards to his supervisors at the USDA. To his shock, he was told the violations didn’t happen and to cut back on the time he spent overseeing humane handling. When Wyatt persisted, he was eventually reassigned to a smaller operation in Vermont—a slaughter plant for calves operated by Bushway Packing.

Within a week, says HSUS senior director of investigations Mary Beth Sweetland, Wyatt uncovered nightmarish treatment, including downed calves being skinned alive and electrically shocked and blasted with water until they could walk to their own deaths. Wyatt, who passed away in 2010, filed more non-compliance reports and was again told to stop. So he called The HSUS, which sent in an undercover investigator who corroborated Wyatt’s reports and documented the abuse.

ag-gag: bills that make it difficult or impossible to expose patterns of animal abuse or food safety violations on factory farms, therefore silencing whistleblowing employees and animal advocates.

In the face of incontrovertible evidence, the USDA shuttered the Bushway facility in 2009. Big Agriculture proponents later attempted to pass an “ag-gag” bill in Vermont, intended to block undercover investigations by animal protection charities. Fortunately, thanks in part to The HSUS’s efforts, the measure failed. If Vermont had an “ag-gag” law back in 2009, The HSUS could not have exposed the abuse at Bushway, Sweetland says, and countless animals would have continued to suffer.

All across the country, pressure from whistleblowers, undercover investigators and consumers has resulted in many advances in farm animal welfare. Gestation crates for pigs have been banned or are being phased out in 10 states. Similarly, six states have banned or restricted the use of battery cages for chickens, and veal crates for calves have been banned in nine states. And more than 200 of the world’s leading food companies have committed to switching to cage-free eggs. But such advances have spurred Big Ag to pursue new measures that seek to stop whistleblowers and block legal protections for farm animals.

What is an "ag-gag" bill?

These measures make it difficult or impossible for whistleblowers and undercover investigators to expose animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, food safety violations and environmental offenses on factory farms. The wording can vary, but the intent is the same: punish those who expose animal abuse or food safety violations rather than the ones responsible.

Six states have ag-gag laws on the books: Alabama, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, North Carolina and Utah. The HSUS has helped to defeat more than 30 such bills across the country in just the last five years.

Right to harm?

Constitutional amendments dubbed “right to farm” are one of Big Ag’s most deceptive strategies.

Chris Holbein, public policy director in the HSUS Farm Animal Protection campaign, says that right-to-farm measures are typically “filled with flowery language about the benefits of agriculture in order to exploit the public’s pride in their state’s responsible family farmers.” But the real goal is to shield corporate factory farm operators from commonsense, democratically passed reforms.

  • Click or tap the map to enlarge.

Right-to-farm amendments make it nearly impossible for elected officials or citizens to regulate industrial livestock production practices through ballot measures. Of course, many of these practices, such as locking animals for months at a time in cages so small they can barely move, are considered morally reprehensible by the public and by independent animal welfare experts.

Two states—Missouri and North Dakota—currently have right-to-farm measures enacted. The HSUS helped to defeat measures in Nebraska and Oklahoma in 2016.

Spotlight on Arizona

In 2015, Arizona governor Doug Ducey vetoed HB 2150—a bill that would have separated farm animals from cats and dogs when it came to the state’s animal cruelty protections, thus making it easier to weaken the already-meager safeguards for chickens, pigs and cows. The HSUS and other animal welfare advocates, including Kellye Pinkleton, a then-lobbyist who worked to oppose the bill, hailed the governor’s veto as a major victory.

Pinkleton, now the HSUS Arizona state director, says there’s growing support in Arizona to protect all animals, including farm animals and wildlife. She adds that many people in the state, which has a large industrial agriculture lobbying contingent, were surprised by the veto. But the way she sees it, the governor was just listening to his constituents. More than 19,000 people (including many HSUS supporters) contacted Ducey about the bill—only three supported it. “The legislature’s job is to represent the citizens, and polling shows they want more protections for animals, not less,” she says.

In response to the veto, the animal agriculture organization and lobbyists behind the bill subsequently introduced a similar piece of legislation. But, as Pinkleton says, “It did not even get a committee hearing.”

What you can do

“It’s critical that we maintain the rights of whistleblowers to document animal abuse in factory farms, and that citizens retain their democratic right to stop cruel and abusive practices,” says Holbein. You can help in your state.

Proponents of ag-gag and right-to-farm measures often try to sneak them past voters. One of the best ways to counter them is to make noise.

Stay up to date on anti-animal legislation and other important topics, so you can call your legislators and ask your friends and family to do the same:
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