In the past decade, modern industrial agriculture has experienced a stream of negative media attention, a significant departure from the typical pastoral image of American farming. The livestock industry in particular has come under fire with the release of undercover videos exposing animal cruelty.



In 2004, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) secretly filmed a video revealing horrific images of workers at a West Virginia slaughterhouse kicking, stomping, and slamming live chickens against walls and floors. The video brought about a massive investigation of the slaughterhouse, as well as several firings of workers who had engaged in the abuse.


A few years later, in 2008, The Humane Society published a similar undercover, investigative video documenting the abuse of “downer” cattle, or cattle that are too sick or injured to stand or walk, upon arriving at a California slaughterhouse. In what Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and an expert in slaughter practices, called “one of the worst animal-abuse videos I have ever viewed,” the video showed workers kicking the downed cattle, dragging them by chains, pushing them with forklifts, and delivering repeated electric shocks in an attempt to get them to stand up for inspection.


In addition to those videos, many others have surfaced in recent years as a result of hidden filming by animal rights advocates posing as employees on farms and in processing plants. In some circumstances, these images have provided the evidence necessary to close a plant, recall certain products, and to pursue criminal sanctions.


In what some say is a response to the bad publicity created by these videos, two states have introduced bills that make it a felony to photograph or record a farm without first obtaining written permission from the owner.


Senator Jim Norman (R) of Florida proposed the legislation, SB 1246, on Feb. 21, 2011. The bill provides that:


[a] person who photographs, video records, or otherwise produces images or pictorial records, digital or otherwise, at or of a farm or other property where legitimate agriculture operations are being conducted without the written consent of the owner, or an authorized representative of the owner, commits a felony of the first degree.


The bill goes on to define a farm as “any tract of land cultivated for the purpose of agricultural production, the raising and breeding of domestic animals, or the storage of a commodity.” No vote has been taken yet on the bill.


Although the bill aims to prevent people from posing as agricultural workers in order to capture farming operations with hidden cameras, some believe that the law, if passed as introduced, could also criminalize even the innocent, roadside photography of farms.


Yet, despite those beliefs, many farmers fully support passage of the bill in order to restore the damaged image of the American agricultural industry. Farmers maintain that it will allow them to do their job without worrying about the potential for widespread dissemination of propaganda-style videos and photographs that instill fear and distrust in consumers. They want to prevent the production of images that may display an unfair perspective of farming operations.


On the other hand, opponents of the bill are outraged, arguing that, if passed, it would be a major step in the wrong direction for transparency in the food system.


Today, the public has little to no idea what goes on behind the scenes at various farming operations. As Morris states in his report, “It used to be that most Americans had some connection to the farm. Now, only one in a thousand of us grow 85 percent of the food.” As such, critics of the bill argue that because of this disconnect, the public has a right to know how their food is being produced, handled, and processed. Videos and photographs are one way to provide that transparency and information to consumers. 


In an interview with the Florida Tribune, Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, said “Mr. Norman should be filing bills to throw the doors of animal producers wide open to show the public where their food comes from rather than criminalizing those who would show animal cruelty.” Instead, Kerr and others believe that this is simply an attempt to perpetuate the image of the family farm, rather than what it has largely become today, an industrial system.


Also considering similar legislation is the state of Iowa. Introduced on March 2, 2011, the Iowa bill, House File 589, would amend the Iowa Code to make it illegal to:


act[] without the consent of the owner of an animal facility to willfully . . . [p]roduce a record which reproduces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility . . . [or] [p]ossess or distribute a record which produces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility.


Thursday, the Republican-controlled Iowa House passed the bill 66-27; it is uncertain how it will be received by the Senate.


Supporters of the Iowa measure maintain that by banning the recording of sounds and images in animal facilities, it will encourage people to report abuses through the proper channels so violations can be handled effectively. In addition, proponents are hopeful that it will also deter activists from publicizing images that may be misleading or inaccurate simply to promote an agenda. Many others disagree.


Kerr has called the bill “misguided,” saying they’re trying to criminalize someone being an eye witness to a crime. 


Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association, added, “Clearly the industry feels that it has something to hide or it wouldn’t be going to these extreme and absurd lengths.”


As some opponents of the bills have also pointed out, in addition to capturing animal abuse and mistreatment, photographs and video recordings of farming operations have the potential to also expose unsanitary conditions that could lead to foodborne illness, unsafe employee working environments, pollution, and a wealth of other issues that may arise during food production. Banning those recordings will significantly limit the amount of information available to consumers to make educated decisions regarding their food choices.


In response to the two recent bills, Judy Dalglish, executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, commented that they are “just flat-out unconstitutional not to mention stupid.” Opponents of the bill are hoping that even if passed, the bills in Florida and Iowa may prove to be unconstitutional. Experts on media law have speculated that the laws would violate freedoms protected in the U.S. Constitution and would not withstand scrutiny.

  • craig m.

    this is just so wrong – close to signing a bill that punishes the person that documents animal abuse, rather than the abusers themselves!
    people of iowa, call your senators before they vote, to lean heavily on them!
    this is just so wrong on so many levels!

  • Doc Mudd

    Only seems like the socially conscious thing to do before filming and again before publishing any footage is to ask first. This isn’t quite the same thing, it seems like, as security cameras or tourists snapping a few souvenir shots at a petting zoo.
    If a fellow employee at your workplace had a passionate hate on for you and just started setting you up and secretly taping you in awkward moments then suddenly posting edited or out-of-context ‘gotcha’ snippets on the air (or even legitimately caught you saran-wrapping the boss’s crapper), well, we’d probably have to have an new law in the aftermath. Maybe there already is a law? There are a few lawyers lurking around here, they might know.
    Anyway, isn’t that what law enforcement is for – to receive tips and complaints about illegal activity? Is their work hampered by vigilantes publishing what might be evidence? And in this day of ‘Photoshop’ is seeing even really believing anymore? It’s certainly easier than ever to embarrass someone with visual images, if that’s the intent.
    By the way, what does this article have to do with food safety. Seems to me to more about supporting hate groups against agriculture and against society in general. Maybe this sort of discussion is better suited to an anarchy website than a food safety one? Just a thought.

  • dangermaus

    This is exactly why I like my local farmers… They actually invite you to come out and see their operation.

  • manon

    so…are we going to ban the use of undercover videos made by police when building a case against dog fighters, drug dealers, and other people breaking the law?

  • I agree with you manon. If animals are being treated inhumanely why should that not be videotaped and exposed? Animal cruelty is illegal! If treating animals inhumanely in factory farming is considered “agriculture and society” then I guess I am against agriculture and society. Society, I guess is torturing defenseless animals right mudd? If this is your idea of society then I hope and pray you never own an animal, or better yet maybe you should be shocked repeatedly, prodded, beaten, scolded, and molested but of course in a defenseless state. While some consumers could care less where the food they eat comes from others prfer to take the less ignorant route and educate themselves. The world is filled with some sick people..

  • Unknown

    My husband worked for a research swine farm and witnessed a fellow employee lose his temper and beat a gilt to death with a crowbar. He reported this to the company’s HR manager upon leaving his position with the company. His job had been threatened if he reported or repeated witnessing the incident by his immediate supervisor. To our knowledge nothing was ever done about the incident. But we can assure you that pigs in some confinement units are being very abused. Nevermind what the company handbook might say or their website either for that matter. It was sweep under the rug. So sad!