'Ag gag' bills aim to stop undercover cruelty investigations

UPDATED to include New York Times front page story on "ag gag" legislation.

Hens tightly crammed in tiny cages. Live birds housed with mummified carcasses, birds trapped in wire and automatic feeders, a "blanket" of dead flies on the floor, a barn so dark workers needed headlamps and ammonia so potent workers need masks.

Those are the conditions an undercover Investigator working for the Humane Society of the United States found at a Krieder Farms, a large dairy and hen facility in Lancaster County last year.

Krieder officials told the Inquirer and others at first that the footage was not filmed at their hen houses, but video clearly shows men with Krieder uniforms. Then they brought in a team from the Department of Agriculture, whose role it is to promote the state's largest industry, who found their facility was in compliance.

Around the country investigators working for HSUS and other animal welfare groups regularly expose cruel conditions in America's factory farms.

The case that generated the most notoriety came from video taken of workers abusing downed cows at the Hallmark meat plant in California in 2008. The exposure of conditions there led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history and criminal charges were brought against employees of the plant which later filed for bankruptcy.

Documentation of treatment of hens in battery-cages, female pigs housed coffin-like crates has led to changes in states, increased calls for new federal laws, and industry-wide agreements to improve conditions for production agriculture animals.

Here in Pennsylvania undercover footage of breeding dogs living in filth, enduring the extreme heat and cold, suffering from untreated wounds, infections and tumors behind the barn doors in puppy mills led to major reforms in the state's dog law.

Whether a puppy mill, a pig farm or hen house, virtually all of these facilities are supposed to have some kind of government oversight - either state or federal or both. But the mistreatment was not brought to the public's attention by government inspectors - who for instance USDA reports show regularly gave puppy mills stamps of approval to kennels later found to be substandard. It was the work of independent investigators that brought the inhumane treatment to light..

But you won't see any footage exposing cruelty in factory farms or puppy mills coming from Missouri and at least four other states with so-called "ag gag" laws that make it illegal to film inside an agricultural facility without an owner's consent.

Driven by "big farming" and other groups who fear animal rights "extremists" are harming agriculture operations, ag gag bills are sweeping the nation. Here In Pennsylvania a Republican Senator who district Krieder Farms, Michael Brubaker, drafted a bill to do just that (a similar bill  - HB 683 -sponsored by Rep. Gary Haluska (D., Cambria ) has been introduced in the House.).

The New York Times features the issue on its front page on Sunday, mentioning Pennsylvania as one of the dozen states considering similar bills. Supporters of the bill fear such videos could cast farmers in a negative light. Animal welfare advocates point to their record of documenting cruelty and the subsequent response in legislatures, among businesses and in criminal courts, as evidence there are plenty of bad operators out there whose activities have only been exposed through the work of whistle blowers.

Food writer Mark Bitman coined the term "ag gag." He has a piece in today's The New York Times looking at the wave of ag gag bills, including one proposed in Minnesota that would make taking a IPhone picture of a dog in a pet shop and texting it to a friend a crime. Many legal scholars raise First Amendment conflicts with such legislation.

As one animal welfare advocate tells Bitman, the industry should be teaming up with groups like his to better train workers and install cameras in their facilities to catch those who inflict cruelty on animals.