MORRIS: Don’t stifle food watchdogs

New laws that aim to end the undercover documentation of cruelty to animals in factory farms are currently pending in six states, and are already on the books in over a dozen more.

You’ve likely seen some of the undercover videos that show the grisly details of what goes on at some factory farms. They are so disturbing they’re hard to watch. But they are good for the public, who has a right to know where our food comes from, and they’re good for farm animals, who need protection from abuse. But they threaten the companies and industries caught on camera.

Over the past few decades, large, indoor, industrial animal factories have rapidly replaced small to medium-scale livestock farms in the U.S. With this shift, our supply of animal food products has become invisible to the public. We trust government inspections, and companies themselves, to stop any wrongdoing immediately.

But to date, undercover videos have proven that these regulations are woefully insufficient.

For example, in 2012 the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released footage that showed a California slaughter-plant worker ramming a “downed” cow with the blades of a forklift to try to force her to her feet. This footage led to the largest meat recall in history and two indictments on animal cruelty charges.

An HSUS undercover video of a veal slaughter plant in Vermont taken in 2009 showed veal calves being skinned alive and thrown around carelessly. The plant was shut down, and there were criminal convictions.

Now the meat industries are fighting back against animal welfare “terrorists,” like the people who filmed these acts, with legislation titled the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act.”

The pending bills proposed under this act make it difficult or impossible for farm animal welfare advocates to investigate and document cruelty and food safety cases in six states — California, Nebraska, Tennessee, Indiana, Arkansas and Pennsylvania.

If the bills pass, it will be a crime to make videos at any agricultural operation in Indiana, Arkansas and Pennsylvania. In California, Nebraska and Tennessee, anyone collecting evidence of animal abuse must turn it over to law enforcement officers within 24 to 48 hours, which advocates say ensures that they do not have sufficient time to adequately document illegal activity under federal humane handling and food safety laws. Undercover animal abuse and food safety investigations often take weeks, according to animal welfare groups.

The proposed Arkansas bill goes even further, prohibiting anyone other than law enforcement officers from investigating animal abuse cases. One of the key reasons animal welfare organizations release their undercover videos to the news media is because law enforcement often fails to act in a timely manner.

These are just the latest efforts by the meat industry to throw a cloak of secrecy over factory farm and slaughter operations. Last year Iowa passed a bill making it illegal to deny being a member of an animal welfare organization on a factory farm job application. Utah passed a law that outlaws all unauthorized photographs on farms.

People have a right to know where their food comes from, and animals have a right to be protected.

Given that we do not have anywhere near the number of inspectors needed to monitor what is happening in the hundreds of thousands of factory farms across our nation, we depend on whistle-blowing employees and animal welfare and food safety groups to be our food supply watchdogs. We need more of these watchdogs — not fewer — and they need to be free to do the job the government is not doing, and the industry does not want done.

If you hail from California, Nebraska, Tennessee, Indiana, Arkansas or Pennsylvania, call your congressional representatives and make your voice heard. Tell them to vote these pending subterfuge laws down.

Viveca Morris is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at viveca.morris@yale.edu .

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