What’s So Bad You’ve Got to Cover It Up, Big Ag?

Ag-gag laws are slowly spreading across the US like a plague, making it more and more difficult to talk about abuses in big agriculture, particularly in slaughterhouses. Such laws primarily ban filming and discussing activity in slaughterhouses, sometimes attempting to extend such bans not just to the slaughterhouse property itself but to neighbouring real estate; take a picture from across the street, and risk breaking the law. Such laws are, of course, the creation and brainchild of the agriculture industry, which has invested a great deal in getting them proposed and passed in legislatures across the country despite the fact that they would seem to be a violation of civil rights.

After all, documenting wrongdoing is technically something that anyone should be able to do, especially if that person is a member of the press, and such laws often deliberately target journalists. As for example in legislation that makes it illegal to obtain jobs in slaughterhouses with intent to mislead, which attorneys would undoubtedly argue is exactly what journalists do when they enter slaughterhouses, processing plants, and similar facilities so they can report on business practices and activities inside. Likewise with legislation cracking down on hidden recording devices, used as tools not just by activists but also by journalists to document what they see and do on the job.

Even talking about ag-gag laws seems to be becoming taboo; these companies don’t seem to realise that trying to get people to stop talking about restrictive legislation is precisely the way to get people to pay attention to it. While the general public may not understand the importance of ag-gag laws, it’s aware that something is going on simply because of the fuss being raised over them. It’s like demanding that people ignore the pink elephant in the middle of the room—it doesn’t get less pink or leave the middle of the room simply because you plead with people to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Which raises an important question: what’s so bad that industrial agriculture is willing to go to such great lengths to cover it up, often drawing attention to its machinations in the process? If the point is to draw the spotlight away from activities in meat processing facilities, often these firms are doing just the opposite. In a way, they’re doing the work of activists for them by attracting public attention. Because we all know that if someone is casually lounging in front of a doorway telling you not to go through, the first place you’re going to want to go is straight through that door.

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of shocking exposures of abuse in US slaughterhouses. The use of downer cows in the food supply, rampant abuse of food animals, and unsanitary conditions have all been documented by journalists and animal rights activists. These individuals have also documented perfectly legal activities that have definitely raised eyebrows among members of the public; for example, many people weren’t aware of exactly how crowded conventional chicken housing was, or what ‘free range’ really looked like for livestock. By bringing these issues to light, people have forced a larger discussion on the food supply and the animals we use for food.

Naturally, this runs in direct opposition to what industrial agriculture would like to see happening, because these conversations cut to the heart of how it does business. While many people prefer not to think about the source of their food, forcing a confrontation with the abuses of livestock has resulted in widespread calls for reform and backing for such reform—including from some surprising sources. Activists, for example, have pressured major fast food companies to demand better living conditions for poultry, and they’ve been backed by the general public, which wouldn’t have cared a few years ago because it wouldn’t have seen documentation of the conditions under discussion.

By insisting on trying to cover up as much of what happens in slaughterhouses as possible, industrial agriculture is only making people more curious about what happens within them. We all know that people only bother to cover something up if there’s something to cover up—this is basically human nature 101 here. Consequently, the flood of ag-gag laws should be demanding public attention, because they’re evidence of something very sinister going on. For one thing, they’re a sign that industry once again wants to restrict civil rights and access to information by making it difficult for people to document things that are happening in the world and present those happenings to the public.

They’re also a sign that something really troubling must be happening within animal processing facilities if it’s necessary to hide them instead of operating under a transparency policy that freely allows people to see what’s going on. Many of these same firms are the ones using happy animals on their product labeling, with cheerful badges like ‘free range’ and ‘natural’ to convince consumers that these products are safe and that they come from content animals who have received the best of care. Such claims are clearly false in the face of overwhelming evidence brought in by those with an interest in farming practices in the US, and thanks to ag-gag laws to highlight the fact that there’s something to pay attention to, the public is starting to challenge those claims.

And, of course, such laws also indicate a systemic, organised attack. Many legislators are relying on cut and paste legislation developed by lobbyist groups, which explains why the same laws pass over and over again in different states. These laws are developed by legal and political experts, designed to be airtight as needed and flexible in other areas to ensure broad coverage and provide the most protection to the corporations that fund their development. And that’s bad news, because corporations should not be writing the letter of the law in the United States, not when they have a vested interest in protecting profits over citizens.