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Gag Order: Why States Are Banning Factory-Farm Whistleblowers

Lawmakers wanted to crack down on the folks who hurt their bottom line: animal welfare advocates.

Undercover footage filmed last year at Iowa’s Sparboe Egg Farms, America’s fifth-largest egg producer, shows scenes more harrowing than a slasher flick. Workers burn the beaks off young chicks without painkillers, then toss the bloody, beakless birds into crowded pens. Other employees grab hens by their throats and shove them inside battery cages, enclosures so small the birds can't even stretch their wings and some become mangled and disfigured by cage wires. Others are tied inside plastic bags and left to suffocate. A particularly disturbing incident shows a worker torturing a hen by swinging it around in the air while the bird’s legs are stuck in a trap.

The video was produced by a representative from animal welfare organization Mercy for Animals who took a job with Sparboe to go undercover. While the footage is tough to watch even for the most committed egg eaters, it led to positive results: McDonald’s, Target, Sam’s Club, and Supervalu—Sparboe’s biggest clients—all ended their relationships with the producer after viewing the video last November. But such changes won't happen in Iowa anymore: Capturing this sort of footage is now illegal under the state's newly passed “ag-gag” law—and other states are poised to follow.

The bill signed into law by Iowa Governor Terry Branstad late last week makes it a crime to record images or sound at a farm without permission from the owner. It’s now a misdemeanor to apply for a job under false pretenses, as Mercy for Animals’ representative did to shoot the Sparboe footage. A second conviction is considered a felony offense punishable by a hefty fine and up to five years in prison.

Iowa’s ag-gag legislation is America’s first, but it may not be the last. Utah, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and New York have similar laws pending. That's bad news both for farm animals and for consumers. Mercy for Animals’ Sparboe sting is just one example of the kind of undercover exposés—stretching back to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle—that have a long track record of creating real reform on safety and animal welfare issues in the food industry. Take Iowa: In addition to Sparboe Farms, Mercy for Animals released undercover footage of Iowa Select, the state’s largest pig factory farm. The graphic video shows workers cutting off piglets’ tails with dull clippers, castrating them without painkillers or sedatives, and flinging them around like footballs. When publications like TheWall Street Journal and Time cover the cruel and unsanitary ways food is produced, consumers take notice—and start to demand better.

Similar investigations have slowly but surely begun to revolutionize the farming system throughout the country. A 2011 undercover video at a North Carolina Butterball turkey facility prompted a criminal investigation by the local district attorney. Footage of Ohio’s Buckeye Veal Farm prompted Costco to stop purchasing veal from producers who chain calves in tiny cages and pushed Ohio lawmakers to phase out this type of veal production method in the state. And a 2008 video produced by the Humane Society of the United States exposed a Southern California meat plant, Hallmark and Westland, using bulldozers to push “downer” cows to slaughter. The dying animals—which were too sick to walk on their own—were destined for the National School Lunch Program. The Humane Society’s video put Hallmark and Westland out of business.

So if undercover farming videos are bringing about such positive change to the food system, why blow the whistle on whistleblowers? Blame Big Ag. Industrial farming groups like the Agribusiness Association of Iowa, Iowa Select Farms (the very same operation that was investigated by Mercy for Animals in 2011), the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, the Iowa Farm Bureau, and Monsanto heavily supported the legislation in America’s biggest hog and egg producing state. Because these Big Ag interests mean big money to Iowa, lawmakers wanted to crack down on the folks who hurt their bottom line: animal welfare advocates.

The irony is that while legislatures protect factory farms, they've shown far less interest in protecting defenseless animals: No federal regulations protect farm animals from cruelty, and while state regulations exist, factory farms are rarely investigated and laws are seldom enforced. That’s why forward-thinking organizations like the Humane Society of the U.S., Mercy for Animals, and Compassion Over Killing have taken it upon themselves—often at great risk to those involved—to expose the food safety and animal cruelty issues rampant at factory farms throughout the nation. Undercover farming investigations make our food system better—not just for animals, but for consumers too. These agricultural advocates should be given megaphones, not gags.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user b3nscott

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