The “Ag-Gag” War

Behind the scenes of the death match between Big Ag and undercover animal-rights activists.

Last year, Big Ag decided to fight back. But not by playing a kinder, gentler game in search of better publicity. Instead, it sought to make criminals of the people exposing its underbelly.

By 2012, Iowa was taking a beatdown.

Its massive egg farms were the subject of online exposés. Its hog factories were being portrayed as porcine versions of puppy mills, where sows are housed in 2-by-7-foot "gestation crates," their only options in life being to stand up, lie down or give birth.

Cody Carlson
Samuel Zide
Cody Carlson
The scene at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania.
Mercy For Animals
The scene at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania.

Costco no longer bought from farms using the crates. Companies like McDonald's, Kroger and Safeway were all in the process of booting them from their supply chains.

For the state's agricultural interests, it was a public-relations nightmare.

Worse, America's appetite was also shifting. Vegetarianism and veganism were on the ascent. The foodie movement had turned to artisanal meat, mostly local and raised by more altruistic hands.

Factory farms still produce more than 90 percent of the country's food supply, but Big Ag could do little to stop the young, urban, educated and moneyed from buying elsewhere. And then there were the videos constantly playing on YouTube, illuminating its sins.

So Iowa decided to outlaw the likes of Cody Carlson.

Last year, the state made it illegal to lie on a job application regarding association with an animal-rights group. It also banned the filming of farms without an owner's consent.

The law was backed by Iowa's largest ag forces, including Monsanto, DuPont and Iowa Select, the state's largest hog producer, which had been stung by an undercover Mercy video the year before.

The bill flew through the legislature in a matter of hours, effectively making exposing cruelty a greater crime than abuse itself. Those found guilty faced up to a year in jail, with felony charges for repeat offenses.

Mary Beth Sweetland heads the Humane Society's investigative unit. She won't speak to the nature of her operation or its people or methods for fear of tipping her hand. But Sweetland readily admits she no longer targets Iowa.

After Iowa passed its law, Missouri and Utah followed, joining Kansas, Montana and North Dakota, which had passed similar statutes two decades earlier, when a more violent strain of activists threatened arson at animal testing labs. Other "ag-gag" bills have since appeared on dockets in 10 states, from California to Florida.

The bills tend to be variations of the Iowa law, combo platters of video bans and the criminalization of job-application lies. Most also mandate that anyone with evidence of abuse hand over the footage to police immediately — usually within a day or two.

Those favoring the bills say the stringent reporting requirements will bring a swifter halt to cruelty. They compare them to laws forcing doctors to report the first signs of child abuse.

"We would see the videotape, and the inevitable question is, 'Why didn't you go to the farm owner or the plant manager?'" asks Dale Moore, former chief of staff of the Department of Agriculture under George W. Bush. "Typically they did, but only after they did their fundraising or sensationalizing."

Yet activists see such rhetoric as painfully disingenuous. If Big Ag truly wishes to fight abuse, they argue, it would expand penalties for animal mistreatment, not for those who uncover it.

"I think any rational person can see how absurd it is to criminalize people who expose illegal behavior," says "Jane," a Mercy investigator who wishes to remain anonymous.

The not-so-hidden hand behind the new laws is the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. It's a conservative, pro-business think tank backed by some of the country's largest corporations, including ExxonMobil, Pfizer and Koch Industries.

ALEC was a catalyst behind the "Stand Your Ground" shooting laws and various voter-suppression methods used in the last election. Its specialty is the "model bill," essentially pre-written legislation that allows conservative officials around the country to copy and paste to their desire.

Want to sabotage some environmental laws? ALEC has a menu to choose from.

Want to stop neighbors from suing corporate farms over issues of odor and waste? ALEC can help you do it by this afternoon.

A decade ago, the group began peddling "The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act," which contained rhetoric so overwrought that it bordered on parody. It sought to make filming a farm an act akin to bombing the Boston Marathon. The guilty would be placed on a "terrorist registry."

Recent rhetoric from ag-gag supporters has been equally over the top.

Take Tennessee state representative Andy Holt, whose own farm produces pork, beef and goat meat. Two years ago, the Humane Society caught Tennessee horse trainer Jackie McConnell slathering caustic chemicals on the ankles of his animals. The pain causes the horses to lift their legs higher during competitions. Footage also showed workers whipping and shocking horses and beating them on the head with sticks.

The Tennessee legislature's response: Crack down on the people who would expose such a thing.

When the state's ag-gag bill passed last month, Holt wrote a letter to the Humane Society that was so blistering — and incoherent — that readers could practically see the spittle as he typed:

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Michelle Parsons
Michelle Parsons 1 Like

What about Texas slaughterhouses? Since we are a city in Texas, I'd like to see an article addressing our own slaughterhouse problems, as I'm sure they exist here just as they do in the cities mentioned in this feature. I'd like to know what Governor Perry is up to in this regard as well...