When envisioning what a typical farm looks like, we often think about the old nursery rhyme “Ol’ McDonald Had a Farm.” Perhaps this image is the result of conditioning from a young age, but it is a far cry from what small family farms look like today. That picturesque notion of a small family farm has faded amidst the advances of our post-industrial society. Food production in western civilization is currently experiencing an unprecedented process of animal husbandry. The era of “cheap meat” is unlike anything the world has ever seen before. With an increasing human population and demand for meat, small family farms like Ol’ Mcdonald’s have become largely non-existent. In their place, multi-national corporations dominate the landscape using their wealth and influence to secure their power. Any farmers that are unwilling to cooperate face the wrath of a multi-billion dollar industry. With about 313 million people in the United States[i], the amount of livestock being raised for slaughter is staggering. The process is highly mechanized, ruthless, and inhumane.
Industrial farms are structured systematically; factory-like. Animals are treated like a commodity, or a means to capital. So, raising these animals is done in a cost efficient way. The old model of farming provided vast space for animals to graze and live outdoors. Today, as a means to conserve space, animals are raised indoors. This model maximizes profits in a number of ways. It allows farm owners to employ fewer people to run the farm, and utilizes the relationships that multi-national corporations have to secure cheaper ways to feed animals. This usually means fewer natural foods, and more highly processed ingredients[ii]. Many of these farm animals are confined in 6.6 feet x 2 feet gestation crates, cages, and overcrowded warehouses[iii]. “Since gestation crates are barely larger than the sow’s body, the animals must urinate and defecate where they stand. As such, the concrete floors of the crates are often partially or fully slatted to allow waste to fall into a pit below. Housing the sows directly above their own excrement has been shown to expose the animals to aversively high levels of ammonia.”[iv] “Downer” factory farm animals are animals that are no longer able to mobilize and are generally very sick, caused by ailments such as infected udders or sores. While it is against the law to distribute this meat for public consumption, they are sold anyway; mostly to the USDA for school food programs[v]. It is clear that conditions inside factory farms are not only harmful to the animals, but to the public as well.
Five hundred tons of manure are produced annually, most of which overflows in the lagoons that are used to store for fertilizer[vi]. “The annual production of manure produced by animal confinement facilities exceeds that produced by humans by at least three times. Manure in such large quantities carries excess nutrients, chemicals, and microorganisms that find their way into waterways, lakes, groundwater, soils, and airways.”[vii] Between the spread of infection amongst the farm animals and the pollution of the surrounding land, public health is a prominent issue. This not only affects the welfare of the general public, but the workers employed by the industrial farms as well. It is common for industrial farm workers to go through hazmat procedures before and after entering a facility[viii]. In addition, workers are not treated humanely. They are under paid, fired at any moment’s notice, and asked to do inhumane things[ix]. For example, since factory farm animals cannot naturally mate (due to genetic modification) masturbating animals for semen to artificially inseminate female animals is a common practice[x].
Several states such as Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois, have very relaxed environmental regulation laws[xi]. In addition, 6 states have passed the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, since 1990[xii] and has been introduced in eleven other states.[xiii] The “ag gag” law (as they are notoriously referred to) protects factory farms from uncover investigators from “entering an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner.”[xiv] Varying state to state, violators can be prosecuted with a misdemeanor or a felony charge. Included in this law is mandatory reporting within 48 hours and the clause that a person cannot be employed at a facility under false pretenses. If caught filming, the individual would be registered as an animal and ecological terrorist.[xv]
In 1887, whistleblower and undercover journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane disguised herself as “insane,” in order to uncover the neglect and abuse that patients endured in the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwells Island. During her ten days at this asylum, she uncovered conditions including but not limited to: distribution of spoiled food, contaminated water, verbal and physical abuse, exposure to cold temperatures, rodents, floors covered in fecal waste, and discovery of patients who were in fact not actually mentally “insane.”[xvi] Exposure of these issues to the public led to more funding for each patient, better food and sanitary conditions, improved nursing care, and more thorough evaluations of incoming patients. Without Cochrane’s investigative work, many of these changes would not have occurred so soon or if at all.
The wave of agriculture whistle blowing can be dated back to 1908. Upton Sinclair went undercover to investigate slaughterhouses that produced sausage; only to witness pigs cannibalizing each other, and found out that the meat was spoiled, and mixed in with rats. This information created uproar after he published his book, The Jungle. Soon after Congress enacted the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which protects and regulates “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein, and for other purposes.”[xvii]
Since then, there has been a lot of public exposure to these inhumane and unsafe practices. More recently, a Mercy for Animals undercover investigator worked at several Sparboe Farms, across three states; Colorado, Minnesota, and Iowa. This person bared witness to chickens being thrown by their necks into cages, beaks being burned off without anesthetic, and dead birds being left inside egg laying cages with live birds. It was also revealed that the presence of rodents were abundant in the facilities. After releasing the footage to Good Morning America and later to 20/20 and World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, several corporations such as, McDonald’s, Target, and Sam’s Club dropped Sparboe Farms as their egg distributor. While these conditions were being uncovered and when the footage was aired, these states were considering passing “ag-gag” laws. Had these laws been passed, not only would the undercover investigator have been prosecuted, but the news outlets would have been as well.[xviii]
According to the New York Times editorial board in 2008, “The legislation has only one purpose: to hide factory-farming conditions from a public that is beginning to think seriously about animal rights and the way food is produced.” Creating coalitions is an essential part of social action, so it is important to bring together various groups with similar concerns and interests.[xix] Spearheading the anti ag-gag movement are several organizations such as, the American Civil Liberties Union, Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, The Teamsters, the National Press Photographers Association, the Humane Society, and Mercy for Animals. Most of these supporters aren’t radical, extremist animal rights groups (which was mentioned by Will Potter during a Democracy Now! debate). Will Potter, an independent journalist, author, and public speaker, has been heavily involved with advocating for the rights of whistleblowers.
Emily Meredith, the communications director for the Animal Agricultural Alliance claims that if there is really compassion for animal welfare, then reporting it immediately would be the right choice. “This footage is taken for weeks or months. It’s held, and it’s released at a politically opportune or strategically conceived time.”[xx] Potter debunked her claim explaining documented patterns of abuse are necessary in order to determine who is involved with breaking laws and to see if it is a systematic flaw, rather than a singular individual occurrence.
As aforementioned, many American states have little to no regulations. So, with the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act put in place, it leaves these facilities to self-regulate. This policy is determined through state legislation. At the moment, it’s not under federal jurisdiction. Many obstacles have been encountered, and one mainly being wealthy lobbying groups. The Center for Science in the Public Interest states, “They [ALEC] pour millions of dollars each year into campaign contributions, lobbyists’ salaries, and advertising campaigns. They wine and dine politicians – often over fatty steaks – and use hardball tactics to rein in any rare elected official dare stray from the proper path…And by making use of the “revolving door,” top officials from the cattle, pork, dairy, and other food- and agriculture-related industries become officials in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and many former legislators and Department of Agriculture officials enjoy more lucrative, and no less influential, careers on Washington’s K Street, where they lobby for those industries.”[xxi] Spearheading the “ag gag” law is the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC. This business advocacy group, whose work has included ‘stand your ground’ gun laws and stricter voter identification rules, have worked to together to formulate the “ag gag” law. Included in this council are hundreds of state representatives from farm states, as well as lobbyists and lawmakers.[xxii]
Several methods are being used by anti “ag-gag” advocacy groups in order to combat “ag-gag” laws across the nation’s states. Regardless of whether a state holds this law, they find it equally as important to be aware of this issue. The Humane Society suggests on their website that many of the anti-whistleblower bills have failed in dozen of states due to public outcry and strong media coverage. Education brings awareness to the issue, so they recommend that the public continues to share footage and information. In addition, petitions and a pledge page have been circulating on the internet. While the goal is to bring this issue to the floor of the federal government, efforts to do so have failed. A petition was created on Whitehouse.gov’s “We the People” tool, but has expired due to insufficient signatures. “If any state passes Ag Gag legislation the entire nation is hurt because the entire nation receives its flesh from factory farms. Without federal protections for undercover investigators and whistle blowers the nation will be left in the dark.”[xxiii] The Institute for Critical Animal Studies encourages on their blog that the public should hold rallies and protests in their home state.
Lobbying can cost a great deal of money, but it is not necessary in order to be effective. Social workers make for strong advocates, because they have the skills to develop relationships, communicate effectively, and have familiarity with legal processes.[xxiv] Battling the “ag gag” law has led to filing lawsuits. In July 2013, advocacy groups and activists; including PETA, ALDF, journalists, professors, as well as whistleblowers, filed the very first lawsuit, in the U.S. district of Utah, claiming that the law is unconstitutional. In Cara Meyer’s article, Ag Gag Tramples Freedom of Speech, The Association of American Prosecuting Attorneys state, “Any prosecution under Utah’s agricultural operation interference law [will] be vulnerable to successful defense challenges under the First Amendment.” In this particular case, Coloradoan attorney Ed Ramey and nonprofit organization Animal Legal Defense Fund are providing pro bono legal assistance in order to help the efforts toward December’s federal court hearing. It will address the issue of how whistleblowers are prosecuted with a misdemeanor charge (for trespassing), in order to obtain incriminating images or sounds from within farming operations.[xxv]
In conclusion, food is not just an animal welfare issue; it’s a political and social one as well. The way in which factory farms self-regulate their operations carries tremendous risk for the public and the environment. Our every-day decisions and choices have an impact on an individual, city, state, and federal level. If the public does not react to legislation like the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, our society will be faced with a mechanism of government that lacks “check” of balance. It can form barriers that criminalize efforts that are protected under our first amendment rights. The risk and sacrifice that whistleblowers experience can be an incredibly effective way to create positive and necessary change. The history of these individuals has proven that it can lead to revolutionary change. American cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”[xxvi]
[i] United States Census – Annual estimates of the population for the united states, regions, states, and puerto rico
[iii] Humane Society, 2013 – An HSUS report: Welfare issues with gestation crates for pregnant sows
[iv] Humane Society, 2013 – An HSUS report: Welfare issues with gestation crates for pregnant sows
[xi] Peterka, 2011 – Agriculture: States struggle to regulate factory farms
[xii] Mohammed, 2013 – Has your state outlawed blowing the whistle on factory farm abuses?
[xiv] Woodhouse, 2013 – Charged with the crime of filming a slaughterhouse
[xix] Popple, 2008 – The Policy Based Profession
[xxi] Brown, 2012 – The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals
[xxiv] Popple, 2008 – The Policy Based Profession
[xxvi] Brown, 2012 – The Lucky Ones: My Passionate Fight for Farm Animals