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.