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," only able to stand up, lie down, or give birth.

Nearly 3,000 pigs at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania, a supplier for Hatfield Quality Meats.
Photo courtesy of Mercy for Animals
Nearly 3,000 pigs at Country View Family Farms in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania, a supplier for Hatfield Quality Meats.

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Watch the undercover animal cruelty videos that spurred Big Ag's censorship crusade.

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 HSUS'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," an MFA investigator who wishes to remain anonymous.


The not-so-hidden hand behind the new laws is the American Legislative Exchange Council. 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, HSUS 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 HSUS that was so blistering—and incoherent—that readers could practically see the spittle as he typed:

"I am extremely pleased that we were able to pass HB 1191 today to help protect livestock in Tennessee from suffering months of needless investigation [by] propagandist groups of radical animal activists, like your fraudulent and reprehensibly disgusting organization of maligned animal-abuse profiteering corporatists, who are intent on using animals the same way human traffickers use seventeen-year-old women," he wrote.

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13 comments
nyfarmlaw
nyfarmlaw

The author didn't mention how New York City politicians have fought tooth and nail for the cheapest possible milk out of rural NY.  The forces driving farms upstate to larger and larger scale have included the lack of a fair price for the smaller scale family sized farms to sustain themselves.  The stage for a decade of massive consolidation in NY's farms was set in 1998 when NY politicians shouted down the efforts of NY's family farmers to collective bargaining in the form of the Northeast Dairy Compact.  I remember the NY Times editorializing that a fair price to the farmers Upstate was not justified.  NYC food groups called it a "milk tax on the poor."  (A phrase coined with the help of focus groups and professionals hired by the huge processors).  Editorials written to the Times demanded large scale corporate farms that were more "efficient" than the outdated family farms. The public has demanded the cheapest food, excoriating farm families as we fought to survive.  If you don't believe me google "Have a cow" "dairy compact." 

MrsB
MrsB

Unfortunately, animal by-products are used for car tires, and other commodities, not just food.  I believe it is in the pursuit of more profits for slaughterhouse owners that these animals have to be bashed, electrocuted and slaughtered by homicidal maniacs who laugh at the torturing, all in the name of greed.  A list of farmers and slaughterhouses, poultry farms, fish canneries, puppy mills, furriers, zoos, circuses, puppy mills and other harbingers of torture should be on a list that is available for the consumer.  That way we can actively not support such ruthless and cruel animal enterprises.  The beef and pork industries, as well as animal research labs are the biggest supports of covering up their terroristic practices. They need to be arrested and put in prison before they kill their family dogs, beat their kids senseless or terrorize their homes. What kinds of criminally insane people work in slaughterhouses?

hkguy
hkguy

Bless you for writing this. I just don't understand — it's beyond comprehension — how people can think some mammals are "cute" and scream to the rafters about the slightest abuse (screaming at me when my rescued dogs are tied up outside a grocery store) and yet blithely consume animal products produced under the most appalling conditions. I.S. Singer said it best: For animals, every day is Treblinka. 

valeriep
valeriep

heartbreaking, humbling and horrific - but a must read. not just for those who continue to eat meat/dairy, but for those of us who don't so that we can be proud of each animal saved from this  inhumanity. thank you for this coverage and thank you to cody and all others who suffer sleepless nights and ptsd because of their undercover work. it is critical to change and i, for one, am very grateful.

scarysmart
scarysmart

Village Voice, because this is an incredible and highly valuable story YOU NEED to give the readers a way to post this on ALL social media and to send out multiple emails especially to legislators on state and federal levels. This is the simplest problem facing our nation for us to deal with and eradicate. NO ONE wants to eat the flesh of animals who are abused and totured.  Because all that negativity goes into bodies and translates into more negativity meaning all sorts of diseases and death.

cannenorris
cannenorris

Anyone who would want to work in these places (unless as an undercover investigator) has psychopathic tendencies. The behaviours of the employees are seriously sick and twisted and it's scary that these people are wandering around free in our society. There should be overt shaming and I would like to see these individuals faces and actions displayed in the videos that are made. There should be harsh consequences for this behaviour.

Michele6933
Michele6933

I nominate PETE KOTZ for tne next non-fiction PULITZER PRIZE . An admirable, all-encompassing, compassionate and eye-opening piece . And thousands of thanks to the brave reporters who have risked much to uncover the horrible criminal situations systematic to the modern agriculture and farming practices. The "terrorists" are those who terrorize animals, it is them who should be imprisoned . We must work to pass laws protecting all animals, non merely pets . Non-humans deserve the same respect humans expect . In the meantime, let us do what we can : do not eat animals and fewer will suffer . There's no such event as HUMANE slaughter . Thank you again, Mr. Kotz

Ursula2007
Ursula2007

Thank you for this article, but there are a few inaccuracies (perhaps you were purposely misled by the industry representatives?). Gestation crates for sows do not prevent piglet deaths - "farrowing crates" are what the sows must live in AFTER giving birth. Gestation crates are used to confine sows that are merely pregnant - for the three months, three weeks and three days of their pregnancy.

Cows, contrary to the assertions of your source, do enjoy moving around quite a bit. Since they are grazing animals, their natural inclination is to roam quite a bit during the day, foraging for food. Naturally, if they are given food from feeders and not allowed on pasture, they would have no reason to roam, and therefore might appear "lazy" to people who see them as nothing but commodities.

And if I hear one more industry apologist declare how animals "sacrifice" themselves for the greater good of humans, I'm going to scream. I'm fairly certain if you bothered to ask an animal if she'd rather live than become someone's dinner, she wouldn't "sacrifice" herself for a gluttonous human's momentary pleasure.

maryfinelli
maryfinelli

Yes, the only way to not be responsible for such horrific cruelty is to reject animal products and opt for a vegan diet - which is also better for human health and the planet's health. It's also a delicious, convenient, very enjoyable way to eat!! See: http://www.humanemyth.org and http://www.VRG.org

Marion X Bertaud
Marion X Bertaud

So happy you posted this. So many people are not aware of where and how their animal products are brought to their plates. If people knew, most people would not consume it!

 
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