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2013-04-09

Debate: After Activists Covertly Expose Animal Cruelty, Should They Be Targeted With "Ag-Gag" Laws?

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So-called "ag-gag" bills that criminalize undercover filming on farms and at slaughterhouses to document criminal animal abuse are sweeping the country. Five states, including Missouri, Utah and Iowa, already have such laws in place. North Carolina has just become the latest state to consider such a law, joining a list that includes Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont. Many of these bills have been introduced with the backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a mechanism for corporate lobbyists to help write state laws. We host a debate on the ag-gag laws with two guests: independent journalist Will Potter, and Emily Meredith, communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to a debate on the so-called ag-gag bills that would criminalize undercover filming on farms and at slaughterhouses. Five states have already passed ag-gag laws. North Carolina has just become the latest state to consider such a law, joining Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Vermont.

AMY GOODMAN: For a discussion on these so-called ag-gag laws, we’re joined by two guests. Will Potter, freelance reporter who’s been covering the bills and ALEC for years, the American Legislative Exchange Council, he runs the blog GreenIsTheNewRed.com. He’s also the author of Green is the New Red: An Insider’s Account of a Social Movement Under Siege. And we’re joined by Emily Meredith, the communications director for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. The group’s annual summit will be held next month with a heavy focus on the undercover animal cruelty videos and the ag-gag laws trying to block them. The summit’s theme is "Activists at the Door: Protecting Animals, Farms, Food & Consumer Confidence." Both guests are joining us from Washington, D.C.

Let us begin with Emily Meredith. Can you talk about the—

EMILY MEREDITH: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Morning. It’s good to have you with us—the Animal Agriculture Alliance and what these laws are that are being often successfully passed around the country?

EMILY MEREDITH: Sure. Well, the Animal Agriculture Alliance is the largest national coalition of individual farmers and ranchers, veterinarians, processing facilities and a host of national organizations representing basically every protein group. And we work to make sure that there’s a unified voice communicating and engaging with consumers and helping them understand where their food comes from.

And this farm protection legislation, which has been termed ag-gag legislation by the activist community, is extremely important because these undercover videos are harmful to the farm owners where these videos are taped, the farm families that work those farms day in and day out, and the animal agriculture industry truly as a whole. And these videos damage their reputations. They bring harsh criticism. And many of these videos have found no legitimate instances of abuse, but rather use manipulated footage. They show false narrative of the images that are being shown. And they’re meant to shock and awe consumers and to really highlight conduct that the animal activist groups want to put an end to the entire industry. They want to end the animal agriculture industry. And that’s what these videos are about. And that’s why legislation like this is so important. It is because this legislation is meant to protect the right of these people to continue to operate their farms and ranches and to continue to provide food to this hungry country and the world.

AARON MATÉ: Will Potter, you’ve covered this issue extensively. Your thoughts on what are called the ag-gag laws or farm protection laws?

WILL POTTER: Well, there is certainly a lot of truth to what you just said. I mean, these undercover investigations have created a lot of distrust with the industry and really questioned where people are getting their meat and animal products from. It’s important to point out, though, that these investigations have also led to criminal charges across the country. They’ve led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. They’ve led to ballot initiatives across the country in which consumers are speaking out.

And to frame this as something by animal welfare groups who are seeking to abolish animal agriculture is just disingenuous. The people that are opposed to these bills are people like the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Press Photographers Association. These are not radical extremist animal rights activists; these are everyone who cares about where their food comes from and whether or not they have a right to know about what they’re buying.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Meredith, your response?

EMILY MEREDITH: Well, I would say that these videos are—they’re showing families, they’re showing farms and slaughterhouses, and they’re basically making them guilty without ever giving them the opportunity to address the allegations that are levied in those videos. They’re not giving them the opportunity to take corrective action. I know that Pete mentioned that they often turn the videos over to the authorities. That is completely—I think that’s disingenuous, when in fact they actually release these videos direct to the media. They send them direct to companies. One of the farms where—that Pete mentioned, they sent the video direct to CNN and to Burger King. And it was in fact the farm owners that turned that footage over to the state prosecutor and took responsibility, fired five of his employees, at least five of his employees, and turned that footage over. And I think that’s—that’s disingenuous.

If you truly care about animal welfare, you’re not going to wait even a minute to report animal abuse. You’re going to see it, you’re going to stop it, and you’re going to say something. And I think that’s very important to note. This footage is taken for weeks or months. It’s held, and it’s released at a politically opportune or strategically conceived time. And it’s used—these videos are used for these groups’ fundraising purposes. I know Pete mentioned Mercy for Animals. Yes, they release these videos, and they release them under a big "donate now" button. And I think that’s really and truly disingenuous. And that’s why this legislation is so crucial.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, your response?

WILL POTTER: I think it’s interesting to say something like the activists are making people who abuse animals and are facing felony animal cruelty charges, in many cases, making them guilty. I mean, it completely restructures the debate away from the people who are actually committing the abuses.

And I think it’s important to point out also that we can’t limit this discussion to what’s being described as criminal activity. Although these investigations have certainly led to criminal charges across the country, much of what these investigators are documenting are actually standard industry practices. I think most people would be shocked to learn that there is not one federal law that protects farm animals during their lives. There are some legislation that protects animals as they’re being transported and some legislation that protects animals as they’re being slaughtered, but that exempts poultry, which are about 90 to 95 percent of animals that are killed. So, to put this in another way, there’s about nine billion animals killed every year for food in this country by an industry with virtually no government oversight and no accountability. These undercover investigators are really the only meaningful way that American consumers have a right to know how their food is produced and to have a check and balance on a multibillion-dollar industry.

AARON MATÉ: Emily, does the industry have safeguards in place that you think counter what Will is saying is needed, which is people investigating and doing monitoring of these farms?

EMILY MEREDITH: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think the last thing that the industry needs is activist groups that really wish to see a vegan world, quote-unquote, "policing" them. Some of the measures that are in place are every employee that is hired on a farm or ranch is required to sign a document saying if they see abuse, they will report it to managers, to farm owners, and even to local authorities. There are a lot of farms, ranches, processing facilities, that have video cameras in place that run every day, that a quality assurance manager or some sort of manager is reviewing that footage. There’s trainings in place. A lot of these facilities train in multiple languages to make sure that their employees understand how to properly handle animals and care for them.

And I think the bottom line to really note here is that these—98.2 percent of farms and ranches in this country are family-owned. I think that the term "factory farm" gets thrown around a lot, and that’s a completely—again, a term made up by—a very catchy term made up by the activist community, whereas, in reality, the majority of farms and ranches in this country are family-owned. And these farm families, they truly care about their animals. And they want—it’s not in their best interest to have abuse allegations levied against them. They want to make sure that every one of their employees is doing the right thing, that they’re doing the right thing, and that they can continue to do what they love to do and what has been in their families for generations. Some of these farms and ranches have been in operation for a hundred years. They don’t want to have any allegations against them that would allege animal cruelty, because that is—A, it’s bad for business, but, B, it goes against what they were raised to do. And I think that that’s really important to note. And we need to remember that these people are producing our food every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, what about Emily Meredith’s points that the vast majority of farms are family farms and that they successfully monitor themselves?

WILL POTTER: It’s completely nonexistent. Old MacDonald’s farm just does not exist anymore. We’re talking about nine to 10 billion animals raised for food every year. These are not little red barns dotting the countryside. These are industrial operations, in some cases with a million birds on a single farm. To say that this is a family business is just misrepresenting how the entire animal agriculture industry functions. This is a multibillion-dollar industry that, as I said, has virtually no safeguards, no oversight from the government. And a handful of activists and whistleblowers have really rattled the industry to its core.

And I think what that really represents is that as these investigations are exposed, they not only lead to criminal charges, but they’ve really changed the nature of the public debate. Most people have been led to believe exactly what Ms. Meredith said, that there are these little red barns and Old MacDonald raising animals for American consumption. But that just doesn’t happen. So people, when they see this footage, when they become aware of how this industry operates, they’re appalled. And I think that really reflects the sea change in the national dialogue right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, I want to ask you about how journalists will be impacted by these bills, but first let’s turn to this 2011 report by ABC’s Brian Ross on McDonald’s dropping a large McMuffin egg supplier. The fast food chain fired Sparboe Farms following allegations of animal cruelty.

BRIAN ROSS: In the wake of an ABC News investigation, McDonald’s has fired Sparboe Farms, citing undercover video made by an animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, showing mindless animal cruelty, most of which is too graphic to broadcast.

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, can you comment on this?

WILL POTTER: I mean, particularly what concerns me as a journalist is exactly what you just described. I mean, these bills are so broad that they wrap up, in some cases, photography and video documentation. They wrap up anyone who distributes or possesses that footage. And even the reformed bills, as they’ve been presented, which focus on misrepresenting yourself in job application or the mandatory reporting provisions, those still put reporters at risk.

I think people need to understand that there’s a long history of investigative journalism in this country, I mean, dating back to Nellie Bly, who pretended to be insane in order to expose systemic abuses in insane asylums across the country, for reporters to document these types of abuses in this way. In addition to that, not everyone who is exposing and making the news has congressional press credentials. We’re in a climate right now where some of the national headlines are made not by investigative journalists, but by people that are taking it upon themselves to document this kind of corruption.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us examples of what has been exposed that has led to the closing of factories, changes in policy.

WILL POTTER: I think it’s really reflective of this national climate to see what happened in North Carolina this last week. A fifth person, a fifth employee of Butterball pleaded guilty to animal cruelty charges. And on that same day, the North Carolina Legislature introduced a new bill that criminalizes the very investigation that led to those criminal charges, and also led to the ousting of a top Ag official in North Carolina on obstruction of justice. I think that really wraps up, you know, the totality of what we’re talking about, that the mechanisms in place that are meant to be safeguards in many ways themselves are corrupt. And it’s taken undercover investigators to expose that and to allow for this dialogue of what needs to happen to reform.

AMY GOODMAN: And a point that Emily Meredith made about if you see abuse, if you do get in there and you do film it, you should have to turn the film over within 24 hours, what is your response to that, Will Potter?

WILL POTTER: I think there are a couple things to point out. One is that this doesn’t allow for a systemic or a multi-abuse pattern to be exposed. For instance, no one would go to the FBI or to the police and say that they should bust the mob after catching one illegal activity. And I think that’s really the same situation here. Do we want to see one aberrant behavior, or do we want to see what is happening every single day on these farms to get a complete picture of what’s happening and how our food is being processed?

I think the second thing to think about is that many of the people who work on these facilities are some of the most vulnerable populations in the country. These are people that in many cases are not native English speakers, that are not familiar and don’t have access to an attorney within 24 hours. So for them to make the decision to report this information and put their livelihood on the line cannot be forced on them in such a short amount of time. That really places an unfair burden on the workers. And that’s why groups like the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO have opposed this, as well.

AARON MATÉ: Emily Meredith, many points to respond to here. Will Potter’s point that forcing this quick disclosure puts an unfair burden on workers?

EMILY MEREDITH: I think that’s blatantly untrue. I think that it’s easy for the activist community to sit there and say it puts an unfair burden on workers, when, in reality, I think it puts an equal burden when they cut and run after obtaining the footage that they want and release it to the mainstream media. I mean, you’re showing workers there that are most—in most cases, not doing anything wrong, are complying with standard industry practices, and you’re releasing that footage direct to the public. So, where are the activists in doing what Mr. Potter just suggested, in helping those workers get attorneys and making sure that they’re represented? They’re not doing that.

And I think it’s easy for them to sit there and say that—you know, make all these excuses why their videos are necessary; however, I think we need to remember that these videos play a huge part in their bottom lines. They’re a huge part to their fundraising campaigns, and it’s how these organizations, like Mercy for Animals, like the Humane Society, like PETA—that’s how these organizations stay in business and continue to operate.

And I would also say that there’s nothing in the Constitution that would give you a right to videotape on private property. In fact, there’s many states that have—that prohibit videotaping in any sort of business, not just on farms and ranches, not just in agriculture. And I think that that—that’s a very crucial point, because just because you’re an undercover activist doesn’t give you the right to go onto someone’s private property. And in many cases, these are family farms, as I’ve mentioned before. Animals are 100 feet from the family home. It doesn’t give you a right, just because you want to—you think you want to expose something, to go onto that private property and to videotape.

And these farms and ranches, they do need protection. In fact, I will say one more thing, if I may, which is that the first of these bills which—the first of these recent bills was actually written at the kitchen table of former Iowa Representative Annette Sweeney. This bill, she had farm—she’s a farmer herself. She raises animals. And she had other farm families coming to her, saying, "What’s our recourse? You know, these videos are spreading misinformation. They’re using false footage. They’re using footage that wasn’t even obtained in our facility. And we don’t have a recourse, and we need to do something about it." And so, she sat down with other legislators at her kitchen table and drafted the first one of these bills to protect families like hers. And I think that that’s what we really need to remember, is that—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go—let’s go to who is writing the legislation. And here I want to ask you about the role of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, in pushing these state bills. ALEC spokesperson Bill Meierling told the Associated Press, quote, "At the end of the day it’s about personal property rights or the individual right to privacy. You wouldn’t want me coming into your home with a hidden camera." Let’s put this question to Will Potter, because Emily Meredith raised it, as well, that people don’t have a right to go onto private property and film.

WILL POTTER: Well, if I were keeping pigs in my home their entire lives and not allowing them to turn around, keeping chickens in battery cages and debeaking them, or docking pigs’ tails without anesthesia, I probably wouldn’t want anyone coming into my home and documenting that, either.

I think what is missing the point here is that the American Legislative Exchange Council is behind a coordinated effort, dating back to about 2003, in which they’ve drafted model legislation criminalizing a wide range of activity, from nonviolent civil disobedience to the undercover investigations of animal welfare groups as terrorism. And over the next 10 years, they’ve used that legislation around the country. And in—the recent attempts of ag-gag bills are really an extension of that. This is a concerted effort by corporations to silence their opposition, and it’s bankrolled by some of the most powerful industries on the planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Where does ALEC fit into this picture, this organization where corporate heads and legislators get together and write legislation?

WILL POTTER: So, I think most of your listeners are familiar with ALEC, because Democracy Now! has reported on it quite a bit. But the way the group functions is by taking thousands of dollars of donations from corporations, and in exchange for that money, these corporations are allowed to draft model legislation. And these model bills are introduced around the country without any fingerprints tying them to the industries that crafted or are attempting to craft the law, so most people have no idea where these bills are actually coming from. Meanwhile, ALEC mobilizes lawmakers around the country. For instance, in Utah, my reporting on the ag-gag bill there showed that the Senate, as it—the Utah Senate that passed the bill, over half of the supporting votes came from ALEC members. I mean, we really have no idea of the true scope of this organization, but it’s clear, especially with this wave of ag-gag bills, that ALEC bills has been a driving force behind these attempts to criminalize activists.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Meredith, how involved is ALEC in the legislation that’s passing in state after state, most recently this week introduced in North Carolina?

EMILY MEREDITH: Well, I’ll go back to what I said earlier, which was the first recent one of these bills was really written around the kitchen table by someone who is a farmer herself, who has a vested interest in this, and who was approached by other farm families, and looking for a recourse for these videos, looking for someone to help them protect themselves, really. And I think that it doesn’t matter where the impetus is coming from, and I would—I would strive to say that the impetus is coming from farm families themselves.

But the true point is that, you know, as Will Potter pointed out, well, I—you know, I don’t think you would want me videotaping that. Well, you know, I think that that is—that is untrue. I think that there’s a lot of farmers’ and ranchers’ organizations, like the Animal Agriculture Alliance, who are striving to be transparent and to help consumers understand where their food comes from. However, we’re running up against staunch opposition and activist organizations, like Mercy for Animals, activists, journalists, who are going in and who are really mistreating this video footage, who are taking footage for weeks and months, they’re holding it, then they’re releasing it, as I said before, at a politically opportune time. And this video footage is often spliced together from footage from 10, 20 years ago that they use in these videos. They’re running a false narrative with a lot of these images. And even—

AMY GOODMAN: Will Potter, that’s a serious charge that Emily Meredith is making, that most of it is false, the videotape.

WILL POTTER: Yeah, it is a serious charge, and I would love to see any evidence of that. I’m sure prosecutors would, as well, as they’ve brought criminal charges in these cases, not from footage from 10 or 20 years ago, but of things that happened months ago, that have immediately led to criminal investigations. If there are allegations of any of this footage being manipulated or staged or doctored in any way, I would love to see it, from anyone in the industry. But they continue to make these claims without any evidence as to what is actually happening.

To talk about transparency in this way is really interesting to me, because this industry is behind attempts to keep consumers in the dark, and then the Animal Agriculture Alliance, for example, is holding a conference about those attempts, and then, at the same time, denying access to reporters such as myself—my credentials were refused—who are trying to attend and learn about their efforts. So at every step of the way, they’re trying to keep the public in the dark, they’re trying to keep consumers in the dark, and they’re trying to make all of us unaware of what’s actually happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily Meredith, your response? And the significance of the meeting that you’ll be having in Virginia, coming up on May 1st to 2nd at the Westin Arlington Gateway, "Activists at the Door: Protecting Animals, Farms, Food & Consumer Confidence"?

EMILY MEREDITH: Well, I want to say first that the industry is not trying to keep consumers in the dark. They have made a lot of efforts to be more transparent, to communicate about things. And in fact, these bills—I want to emphasize this point—mandate reporting. They want you to see it, they want you to stop it, and they want you to say something. They don’t want you to hold the footage. As I said before, a lot of this footage is never even turned over to prosecuting authorities, until the farm families and the owners of these facilities turn it over themselves. And that has happened in numerous cases.

The second thing I want to make a point about is that after a lot of these videos are released, these farms themselves are going to independent review panels—excuse me—and having these videos reviewed by known humane handling experts, like, for instance, Dr. Temple Grandin. And I want to make this point very clear. When that review panel asks for the full footage—let’s say that the activist organization was in a facility for three weeks or three months—when that review panel, which—

AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.

EMILY MEREDITH: —which includes experts, they ask for the full footage, they’re not turned that full footage over. The activist community does not want that review panel to see the full footage. And in my mind, that’s because there really is—

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Emily Meredith, I want to thank you for being with us, of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, and Will Potter, freelance reporter, author of Green is the New Red. We will look at the case of Daniel McGowan after our show, and we’ll post it at democracynow.org.

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