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Undercover videos and other images taken inside factory farms are unquestionably among the most powerful tools activists have in the campaign for animals. But if lawmakers and animal ag interests in Iowa and Florida have their way, they could earn investigators prison time in those states. Last month, Florida state senator Jim Norman introduced a bill at the request of one of the state’s largest egg producers that would make it a first-degree felony to take a photo or video recording of a farm without the farmer’s permission. The law would carry a penalty of up to 30 years in prison. Norman told The Tampa Tribune that his bill, which even Drovers CattleNetwork calls “extreme,” is aimed at animal rights activists who secretly photograph or videotape farm conditions and post disturbing images on web sites. “It’s been a problem nationally,” said Norman. “I’m talking about an assault on the agriculture industry.”      

MFA’s undercover video showing animal abuse at an Ohio dairy farm in 2010 made national news.

At the vanguard of this “assault” are animal advocacy groups like Mercy For Animals (MFA) and PETA, which have secured video evidence of horrific cruelty inside many of the nation’s pig farms, egg facilities, dairy farms, hatcheries, and slaughterhouses. Video taken by an MFA investigator using a hidden camera inside an Ohio dairy farm last year, for example, showed employees violently punching young calves in the face and slamming them to the ground, using pitchforks to stab cows, beating “downed” cows (who are too sick or injured to stand) — and bragging about it. MFA’s video made headlines across the country and resulted in the arrest of a dairy employee, who was convicted of animal cruelty. (That he was sentenced to a mere 8 months of jail time — and that his crimes were only considered misdemeanors — is a depressing commentary on the lack of laws to protect farmed animals.) Incidentally, MFA has done 10 undercover videos since 2007, and for every one of them, the facility investigated was chosen at random.

Agriculture committees in the Iowa House of Representatives and Senate, meanwhile, have just approved a bill that would prohibit recordings like those by Mercy For Animals and punish people who take agriculture jobs just so they can have access to animals and record their treatment. Proposed penalties include fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years in prison. The bill passed the House vote on March 17 and still needs to go on to a Senate vote and then to the Governor.

Not a single federal law protects farmed animals from cruelty during their short lives in factory farms, and Iowa specifically excludes these animals from anti-cruelty protection. “Without undercover investigations, there are no meaningful watchdogs protecting animals from egregious cruelty in these facilities,” says MFA’s executive director Nathan Runkle. “This bill is a blatant violation of free speech and freedom of the press. It keeps consumers in the dark, threatens public health, and hurts animals by shielding animal abusers from public scrutiny.”

Animal law expert Bruce Wagman says these laws will have a chilling effect on the ability of animal advocates to expose abuses. “At this point, it’s singling out one specific type of speech and opinion in an effort to silence the rising protest in America over the way animals are treated for food,” he says. “It will affect animals because if we’re unable to document these practices, then they will continue to suffer alone and in terror without any of the watchdogs who have provided a benefit to not just we Americans but the animals inside factory farms and slaughterhouses.” Wagman notes that exposing the cruel practices of industrial agriculture can lead to new legislation and litigation that protects the animals in the future.

As Mark Bittman observed in his blog this week, activists shouldn’t need to sneak cameras into slaughterhouses and factory farms: the cameras should already be there. That’s exactly what is happening in the UK, where the nonprofit Animal Aid installed hidden cameras in seven randomly selected slaughterhouses and videotaped workers in six of them kicking, slapping, and stomping on animals. One worker is seen cutting off the heads of sheep while they are still alive. The results of Animal Aid’s investigation caused an outcry in England, and supermarket chains are now demanding that CCTV cameras are placed inside the slaughterhouses that supply their meat.

Agribiz has complained that those who make undercover videos often wait weeks or months before releasing the tape, rather than immediately bringing abuses to the attention of farm owners or the USDA. In response, Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, says that if undercover investigators shoot just a single day of footage, the company involved will claim it was an isolated incident. So activists have learned they must document that a practice is a pattern known by management and accepted by the company.

In other instances, authorities see the evidence long before it’s released to the public, but they want more time to investigate. Such was the case in 2007, when the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) collected evidence of abuse at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in Chino, Calif. An investigator for HSUS videotaped slaughterhouse workers attempting to force downed cows into the human food chain. In the video, workers are seen kicking cows, ramming them with the blades of a forklift, jabbing them in the eyes, applying painful electrical shocks, and even torturing them by aiming full-force hoses into their noses and mouths in an effort to force sick or injured animals to walk to slaughter.

Upon viewing the tape four years ago, then Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer said, “It is unfortunate that the Humane Society of the United States did not present this information to us when these alleged violations occurred in the fall of 2007. Had we known at the time the alleged violations occurred, we would have initiated our investigation sooner, and taken appropriate actions at that time.”

In response, HSUS President Wayne Pacelle said the group did take action. “The HSUS turned over, to appropriate California law enforcement officials, extensive videotape evidence, once the investigation was concluded,” he said. “Local authorities asked for extra time before public release of the information.” The video prompted the recall of 143 million pounds of beef and led to the closing of Hallmark/Westland.

“I would think that the lobbyists behind this campaign to quell scrutiny of existing industry practices would, if their clients truly had nothing to hide, be pushing for public funding to install streaming web cameras so their clients could show off their state-of-the art operations rather than trying to prevent those who question current practice from exposing them,” says attorney Scott Heiser, director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Criminal Justice Program. “At a time when many have lost faith in government’s regulatory abilities, I can’t help but wonder how much factory farming profits would drop if the average American consumer were confronted with candid and accurate images depicting the conditions endured by the animals used to produce their food.”  Heiser adds, only half jokingly, “I suppose the next move is to ban and burn every copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.”

Laws like those being proposed in Florida and Iowa could potentially impact all kinds of undercover work. It’s not difficult to imagine a wide variety of industries lobbying for similar legislation that will keep undercover activists and reporters from revealing what goes on behind their closed doors. But as Wagman points out, Big Ag has specifically targeted animal welfare and animal rights investigators because they are doing such a good job of revealing the neglect and violence that are so rampant — and often standard practice — in animal agriculture. “With this industry, all you have to do is get inside the facility to be exposed to some of the most horrific cruelty and treatment of animals imaginable,” he says. “For a variety of reasons, the government is unable to provide the oversight and investigatory power to discover this abuse. The only real way to expose it is to do what these courageous men and women are doing.”

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