As our society makes continuing progress on animal welfare, exposing cruelty and creating social, corporate and public policy standards, there’s an inevitable backlash from the industries that want to continue to do things just the same as always. I’ve written about the funded brand attack on The HSUS by a hired gun whose resume is dominated by his work for alcohol, tobacco and animal cruelty. Then there’s the King amendment, which seeks to wipe out state laws that create standards or conditions for agriculture operations. And, in perhaps the biggest news story of the year, lawmakers in 11 states introduced measures to make it a crime, in one form or another, to conduct undercover investigations at agricultural operations – the so-called “ag-gag” proposals.
Meat industry consultant and scientist Temple Grandin said that, “[ag gag bills are] the stupidest thing that ag ever did.” The San Francisco Chronicle called the package of bills from agribusiness “The worst PR gaffe since New Coke.” And we’d have to agree. As controversy over the legislation raged in the states, newscasters repeatedly showed footage of past investigations, exposing the public to images of factory farming abuses like extreme confinement in gestation crates – and the industry had to view that as self-defeating. And, in a general sense, consumers had the impression that agribusiness interests had something to hide.
Today, the North Carolina legislature adjourned without approving its version of an ag-gag bill. Similar bills failed in 10 other states. The most vigorous debate had played out in Tennessee, where a bill narrowly skidded through the legislature, but it was ultimately vetoed by Governor Bill Haslam.
So, yes, it’s a great outcome that The HSUS and its allies worked with upstanding lawmakers to block these bills this year. But a half dozen states approved similar measures in prior years, and these laws have had a chilling effect on whistleblowers and investigations. We are quite sure we haven’t seen the last of them.
It should be a policy priority for lawmakers to protect animals from cruelty and to maintain strong food safety standards. Treating the investigations of cruelty and unsafe business practices as the problem turns logic and common sense on its head. It protects scofflaws and people with something to hide, and does a disservice to the workings of a civil and transparent society.