There are currently only two federal laws in place that govern the treatment of the almost 10 billion animals raised for food every year in the US. Both laws are rife with exceptions and loopholes, and neither offer animals any protection whilst on the farm where they are bred and raised.
The 28-Hour Law mandates that animals being transported across state lines by vehicle must be unloaded every 28 hours to rest, eat, and drink. The Human Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act requires that animals be anesthetised or stunned before being slaughtered.
Both laws exclude all species of poultry, and the 28-Hour Law doesn’t apply to animals transported by air or water.
With a few very minor exceptions, state laws do not provide farmed animals any further protection from abuse. In fact, most states explicitly exclude farm animals from their animal anti-cruelty laws.
With no legal protections in place, animals raised for food face a range of unchecked abuse and mistreatment. In an effort to combat acts like the beating, torture, skinning alive, and sexual abuse of farms animals, animal welfare groups and concerned individuals have sought to bring public attention to such cruelty in an effort to effect change.
According to a new study by the Journal of Agricultural Economics, consumers respond to such revelations by eating less meat. Rather than responding to such information by taking steps to prevent cruelty to farm animals, the factory farming industry began to champion so-called ‘ag-gag’ laws that would prevent abuse from being documented or reported.
Ag-gag laws criminalise audio recording, video recording, and photography at farming facilities. Others also make it illegal for animal rights supporters to obtain employment at a farm or farming facility without disclosing that fact prior to being hired. Earlier this year, Amy Meyer was standing outside a slaughterhouse in Utah when she saw a sick cow being pushed by a bulldozer. Even though she was standing on public property while she recorded the event, she was arrested and prosecuted under Utah’s ag-gag law.
Six states currently have ag-gag laws on the books and many more have been introduced. Such laws are additionally bolstered by the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2006. The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act makes it illegal to interfere with a company’s profits. If a factory farm employee records abuse at their facility and shares it with the message that people should not purchase meat from that company, they are a terrorist and can go to jail. According to animal rights journalist Will Potter, if convicted, these ‘terrorists’ are sent to special Communications Management Units in US prisons reserved for prisoners with ‘inspirational significance.’
The factory farming industry is aware that the industry standard abuses exposed by covert videos and photographs has the ability to damage their profits. With billions of dollars of influence, the industry has the government on their side.
While ag-gag laws were pioneered in the US, a country notorious for its factory farming abuses, other countries with large farming industries are beginning to take note.
‘Inspirational Significance’: The Dangers of Widespread Ag-Gag
Australia has exported more than 160 million live animals over the past 30 years. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, more than 2.5 million of those animals died on the voyage overseas. In March of this year, a video of two workers beating pigs at a slaughterhouse for Australia’s biggest pork producer led to the termination of their employment.
Such revelations have resulted in an increased awareness of animal cruelty and more calls for protection. However, the Australian live animal export sector earned 996.5 million Australian dollars (932,798,737.50 US dollars) in 2009 alone. The industrial lobby has the potential to be as influential here as in the US. Already, New South Wales Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson has borrowed from US anti-activist jargon, saying that undercover investigators are ‘akin to terrorists.’ According to the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘West Australian Liberal Senator Chris Back and a number of Australian federal politicians’ from both sides have ‘voiced support for US-style ag-gag laws.’
Will Potter notes, however, that Australia is in a better position to prevent such laws from being enacted than the US. With the benefit of knowledge of US laws, Australians have the ability to stop the ag-gag discussion in its tracks.
While most normal work environments have provisions to protect whistleblowers who report misconduct within or by a company, the agricultural industry is ready to punish anyone who refuses to be silently complicit in animal abuse. The industry would rather spend time and money enacting legislation against whistleblowers than stop their own abuses. It is a corrupt system, but one that we have the power to change. Many ag-gag laws in the US were enacted swiftly with assistance from powerful corporations. Yet many others were struck down thanks to the voices of a concerned public. People have the power to prevent more ag-gag laws from being enacted in the US, Australia, and elsewhere. It is the abuse itself that should be illegal, not the reporting of abuse.
The current iterations of ag-gag legislation stem from the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, a model law drafted in 2002 by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organisation described in a report on Al Jazeera as ‘a conservative group that brings together big business and politicians to formulate laws favourable to right wing and corporate interests.’ ALEC’s model law and its ag-gag evolutions classify nonviolent civil disobedience as terrorism, ban picture-taking that ‘defame(s) the facility or its owner,’ and would require violators of these laws to be placed on a ‘terrorist registry.’
This type of legislation is just the latest attempt to transform the label ‘eco-terrorism’ into a bona fide threat to national security and American values. The rising tide of ag-gag legislation being drafted to be passed into law, not only in other US states and other countries like Australia but across other industries, will further push the attitude of environmental activists as ‘political others,’ radicals not to be negotiated with, dangerous at worst and irrational at best. After all, what responsible citizen would want to hear the arguments of a terrorist, anyway?
As environmental activists are continually pushed in that direction, towards the irrational-dangerous end of the political spectrum, the chasm between groups of people grows wider, and the effort to understand shrinks from necessity to inconvenience to impossibility. Soon, the difference between powerful decision-makers and the politically ostracised will begin to resemble the difference so many people believe exist between humans and animals.
Ag-gag legislation threatens both discourse and direct action, a combination potentially ideal and necessary ‘to link oppression and justice across species.’ In his forthcoming book Total Liberation: The Power and Promise of Animal Rights and the Radical Earth Movement, David Naguib Pellow writes,
Many activists also believe direct action is necessary because working within the state and capitalist system will never achieve total liberation, if those institutions are at some level responsible for the oppression in the first place.
This is another reason ag-gag legislation is a serious problem. With special interest groups setting up and putting into place the barriers needed to protect their industries, environmental activists will undoubtedly cross over into more drastic realms. ‘Creating special laws for people because of political beliefs sets a very dangerous precedent,’ Will Potter told Australia’s ABC National. ‘Regardless of how you feel about animals or the environment and what causes you care about, it could be used against you.’ Potter provides evidence of discourse continually breaking down: ‘The argument I’m making is essentially quite a conservative one.’
But because the argument comes from someone who has been considered by some as a domestic terrorist for his work, it is heard as radical if heard at all. There is something rather alarming about a special interest group with the power to write legislation designed against another group whose agendas come in conflict with illegal business activity. Rather more alarming that this fact isn’t plainly seen by so many. This is no longer an issue of capitalism or protecting your industry, as the legislation claims, but a thwarting of whistleblowers, ‘the smoothing out of wrinkles’, and one step back from the transparency we need to evolve in the right direction.