For the second time, Utah prosecutors have dropped charges of “agricultural operation interference” that police had filed under the state’s new law for cloaking agricultural facilities with special legal protection. Prosecutors backed away from pursuing the so-called “ag-gag” part of their criminal case against four vegan activists from the Bethesda, MD-based Farm Animal Rights Movement. While Iron County Attorney Scott Garrett dropped charges of “agricultural operational inference” against the four, he will continue to charge them with simple trespass, which is said to have occurred last Sept. 24 in the vicinity of the hog-raising Circle Four Farms in southwest Utah. The four — Sarah Jane Gage, 43, of Los Angeles; Robert Penney, 64, of Laguna Beach, CA; Harold Weiss, 34, of Pasadena, CA, and Bryan Monell, 50, of Mount Rainier, MD — earlier pleaded not guilty to the county charges. An attorney for the four has said they were on the side of roads, not on private property. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s office said the four were detained for about two hours and nothing was taken from them before they were released. Garrett said the more serious “agricultural operation interference” charges against the four were being dropped at the request of Circle Four Farms, owned since 2013 by Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork producer and a subsidiary of China’s Shineway Group (known as Shuanghui Group in non-English-speaking countries). Utah’s first “ag-gag” law arrest occurred on Feb. 8, 2013, when Draper City police took Salt Lake County resident Amy Meyer into custody. Meyer, an animal-welfare activist monitoring a local slaughterhouse, was taking pictures of apparent animal abuse but was doing so from public property. Charges against Meyer were dropped on April 30, 2013, but only after she obtained private legal counsel and made court appearances. Meyer is now a plaintiff in the federal court challenge to the Utah “ag-gag” case, which is scheduled for trial next year. Meyer and other plaintiffs claim that the purpose of the “agricultural operation interference” crime is “to impair the public debate about animal welfare, food safety, and labor issues on modern industrial farms. In essence, the law criminalizes undercover investigations and videography at slaughterhouses, factory farms, and other agricultural operations, thus ‘gagging’ speech that is critical of industrial animal agriculture.” Further, they say the purpose of Utah’s “ag-gag” law is to “silence undercover investigations and corresponding media media coverage.” Utah’s Circle Four Farms produces about 1.2 million hogs per year and provides employment for about 450 local residents. While not one of the animal-welfare groups typically doing the undercover investigations that “ag-gag” laws are designed to stop, the Farm Animal Rights Movement promotes the vegan diet and animal-rights activism.