A three-week investigation at a Butterball turkey farm in North Carolina by an animal welfare activist with a hidden camera documented workers beating birds with metal bars, stomping and kicking them, and throwing them violently into metal cages by their necks (video below). Mercy for Animals, the non-profit organization responsible for the investigation, turned the footage over to prosecutors in December 2011, and the police raided the facility. Five workers were charged with criminal animal cruelty, and a top-level Department of Agriculture official was convicted for obstruction of justice in February 2012.
How did North Carolina state Senators Brent Jackson, Wesley Meredith, and Jim Davis respond to the scandal? On April 2, 2013, the same day that the fifth Butterball employee pled guilty, they introduced a bill called the "Commerce Protection Act." It didn't mention animal agriculture, so it might have flown underneath the radar. But as independent journalist Will Potter pointed out, the bill is yet another "ag gag" bill, with similar language and provisions to at least ten others moving across the country in 2013.
Specifically, the bill would ban photography at a place of employment, make it a crime for anyone to make false statements on a job application (such as when an animal welfare activist applies for a job at an agribusiness operation for the purposes of an investigation), and make it mandatory to turn any recording over to authorities within 24 hours. Many of the investigations targeted take weeks to document a pattern of abuse, including the North Carolina Butterball investigation -- these investigations would be made illegal.
As the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) has reported, "ag gag" bills have passed in Iowa, Utah, and Missouri; the first similar bill was introduced in Florida in 2011. Since then, similar bills have been introduced in a handful of states each year since. The larger number of bills introduced just in the first several months of 2013 prompted Grist to ask if 2013 will be "the year of ag-gag bills."
In the last few weeks, the mainstream media have taken note. Two days after CMD's coverage traced the bills back to their "ideological ancestor" -- an American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) bill called the "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act" -- the Associated Press took up the story. The AP article quoted ALEC spokesman Bill Meierling: "At the end of the day it's about personal property rights or the individual right to privacy," he said. "You wouldn't want me coming into your home with a hidden camera." On April 7, ALEC and ag-gag were featured in a rare spot on the front page of the New York Times.
The investigations undertaken over the years by citizen journalists and animal welfare advocates have helped to uncover inhumane farming practices and serious food safety violations. Banning these investigations will likely generate even more serious scandals.
For more information on each of the "ag gag" bills introduced since 2011 -- and their historical predecessors in ALEC and elsewhere -- please see CMD's SourceWatch resource here.