2 ag-gag laws facing federal court challenges

Published on NewsOK Modified: July 19, 2014 at 12:38 pm •  Published: July 19, 2014
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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The years-long fight between farm organizations and animal rights activists over laws prohibiting secretly filmed documentation of animal abuse is moving from state legislatures to federal courts as laws in Utah and Idaho face constitutional challenges.

Half of U.S. states have attempted to pass so-called ag-gag laws, but only seven have been successful. Among them are Idaho, where this year's law says unauthorized recording is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, and Utah, whose 2012 law makes it a crime to provide false information to gain access to a farm. Both states now face separate but similarly worded lawsuits that say the measures violate federal statutes offering whistleblower protections and free-speech guarantees.

Farm organizations and livestock producers say ag-gag laws are aimed at protecting their homes and businesses from intruders, and some plan to use social media to assure the public they have nothing to hide. But animal rights groups, free-speech activists and investigative journalists want to throw out the laws because they say the secrecy puts consumers at higher risk of food safety problems and animals at higher risk of abuse.

Numerous investigations have taken place on farms in the past decade, leading to "food safety recalls, citations for environmental and labor violations, evidence of health code violations, plant closures, criminal convictions, and civil litigation," the Idaho lawsuit says.

One such investigation was conducted by the Humane Society of the United States in Chino, California, in 2007, and led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Undercover video at a slaughterhouse showed cows too weak or sick to walk dragged by chains, rammed by forklifts and sprayed with high-pressure hoses. It was released after three attempts to get the facility's USDA inspectors to do something, and the government ended up recalling 143 million pounds of meat, including 37 million pounds intended for the school lunch program.

"These ag-gag laws are putting the public at risk and they further erode what trust there is among Americans for the meat industry," said Paul Shapiro, the society's vice president of farm animal production.

Well aware of the image and trust problems that the investigations and subsequent laws have created, some farm groups have decided to change their strategy — forgoing the usual political channels and instead communicating to the public the scope and use of animal care standards.

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