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‘Ag-Gag’ Laws: Hiding Animal Mistreatment

Samuel Dupret reports on the problematic nature of global ag-gag laws in restricting agricultural whistleblowing, including an exclusive interview with L214, a French animal rights organisation.

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You have probably seen horrifying footage of the conditions in which animals are raised for meat (or eggs and milk). However, the influence of animal agriculture industries on law makers has created numerous risks for people who choose to expose such conditions.

Some of the following information is gathered from private correspondence with L214, translated from French to English by the author. Warning: references marked with * contain footage that might be graphic and / or disturbing.

Whistleblowing about animal conditions does benefit animals and consumers. For example, in 2008, a video distributed by the Humane Society showed workers hitting cows that couldn’t walk which led to an investigation, a massive recall of beef - cows who cannot walk present a higher risk of disease - and two employees being charged with animal cruelty.

Further, French activist group L214 investigated violations regarding the stunning and bleeding of animals at the Boischaut slaughterhouse*. This led to a temporary closure of the slaughterhouse as well as a trial and fines. According to L214 cofounder Brigitte Gothière, the slaughterhouse would still be operating illegally if it wasn’t for their investigation.

However, whistleblowers often take risks when denouncing the practices of animal agriculture, notably because of “ag-gag” laws. These are laws that make it illegal to collect and distribute footage of what happens in factory farms and slaughterhouses.

Sadly, ag-gag laws are effective. As Vox reported, major animal organisations such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Humane Society have refrained from conducting investigations in U.S. states such as Kansas or Iowa, where they would have risked breaking the law by doing so. Those who still whistleblow in those states, like DxE*, often face severe charges.

Ag-Gag Laws in North America

The U.S. is infamous for having a range of ag-gag laws across its states. Usually, these laws make it illegal to enter animal facilities as well as collect and distribute footage. Iowa used to have a law that made it illegal to use “deception” (such as getting a job in a factory farm to become an insider) to collect images or videos without authorisation from the owner of the facility. States like Missouri have “rapid reporting laws” where evidence of animal cruelty must be reported to law enforcement within 24 hours of recording. Whilst these seem less extreme, they hinder the work of animal activists because they prevent them from building a case and showing patterns of abuse, which might lead to punishing employees without ever punishing industry owners.

Arkansas and North Carolina have laws where businesses could sue activists for collecting footage. Whilst primarily meant as ag-gag laws, Arkansas and North Carolina’s laws are wide ranging enough that whistleblowers collecting footage in businesses beyond animal facilities (e.g. nursing homes) could be sued.

However, there is some good news for animal welfare activists because many ag-gag laws are being struck down. In 2020, North Carolina’s wide ranging ag-gag law and Kansas’s 1990 ag-gag law (the oldest in the country) were ruled unconstitutional by the federal court because they infringed on freedom of speech (i.e. first amendment rights). However, many other laws are still standing and, as ag-gag laws in Iowa are struck down, new ones are signed in.

2020 also saw Ontario (Canada) sign-in an ag-gag law. Among other things, it contains prohibitions against interfering with motorised transport of farm animals and interacting with animals being transported. Actor Joaquin Phoenix mentioned the law in a tribute to activist Regan Russel, who was killed by a truck transporting pigs to slaughter:

“The Ontario government can attempt to silence us with the passage of its Ag-Gag bill – Bill 156 – but we will never go away and we will never back down.”

Ag-Gag Laws in France

In France, activist groups who want to expose animal mistreatment must do so while facing large lobbies and a government that supports the private interests of the industry.

In December 2019, based on demands from the FNSEA (France’s main farming union and lobby), the Ministry of the Interior created the Cellule Demeter - a special ‘task force’ in the Gendarmerie Nationale (a police force that is part of the military) to help ‘defend’ the agricultural industry. It has served to monitor, collect intelligence on and intimidate people who oppose the current agricultural model. It also serves as a partnership - of which information sharing is key - between the Ministry of the Interior and the FNSEA. The then Minister of the Interior had openly declared that one of the aims was to gather intelligence on anti-speciesist groups.

Thirteen groups, including the Confédération paysanne (a farming union), have written a letter to the government asking for the dissolution of the Cellule Demeter and for it to plan a transition to a more sustainable agricultural model. Clearly, the position of the FNSEA isn’t representative of every farmer.

L214, with the support of the Human Rights League, has decided to sue the Cellule Demeter for impeding fundamental freedoms. We asked L214 about the threat the Cellule Demeter represents to their activity. Brigitte Gothière told me that:

“We [L214] know that by questioning the system supported by the major agricultural union (FNSEA), by raising thorny questions about animal welfare, we are taking risks. This isn’t new. We live with it.”

In January 2021, members of Macron’s parliamentary majority presented a report investigating new legal solutions regarding those who obstruct activities such as animal agriculture and hunting. Animal welfare groups were invited to participate in the report, but groups like the WWF had refused to participate, explaining in a letter that they feared that its mission was to repress speech and information liberties. Indeed, some of the report’s propositions involve creating a punishment of one year in prison and 45,000€ in fines for discrimination or defamation against someone for their hobbies or professional activity, making it possible to punish people who publicly criticise farmers or hunters.

In March 2021, the French senate approved an amendment of article 226-4 that would make it possible to punish whistleblowers who enter agricultural facilities with up to three years in prison and 45,000€ in fines. Right-wing senator Laurent Duplomb, who approved the amendment, made it clear that the intention is to prevent people from collecting footage in farms. Thankfully, the Conseil Constitutionnel declared this amendment unconstitutional because it had no link, even indirectly, with the content of the sécurité globale law to which it was attached.

As L214 told me:

“It is good that the Conseil Constitutionnel didn’t allow for this scandalous amendment aimed at intimidating whistleblowers, preventing people from making the conditions in which breeding and slaughter occur transparent, denouncing abuse and dysfunctions and raising essential societal questions”.

For L214, this amendment, the report for new legal solutions and the Cellule Demeter “confirm the government’s will to suppress alerts”. As Brigitte Gothière explains:

“When dysfunctions or serious offenses are brought to light, the government has two options: trying to correct and improve the situation, or silence any criticism. This last option is the one that has been chosen concerning animal welfare. No questioning of the failing state control measures and the prohibition of public debate about an agricultural and food model despite it being harmful to animals, humans and the environment.”

The Industry’s Defence of Ag-Gag Laws and How it Fails

Proponents of ag-gag laws often argue that the aim of these laws is to prevent activist from causing biosecurity risks (e.g. by introducing pathogens to the animals) or causing distress to the animals when they enter animal facilities. These are important concerns, but there are grounds to be sceptical about their genuineness.

As Matthew Strugar - primary litigator striking down ag-gag laws such as Iowa’s 2012 law - told Vox: “If the concern is biosecurity, how does prohibiting lying on an employment application or taking a picture help?” Furthermore, Animal Justice have released a report suggesting that animal advocates have never been the cause of biosecurity incidents in animal facilities in Canada, whilst the industry itself has failed multiple times on this front. Similarly, considering the disturbing footage we see of animals in factory farms and abattoirs, we might not be so inclined to believe that the industry is deeply concerned about animal distress.

Proponents also argue that people unfamiliar with farming might see disturbing practices without understanding that they are the ‘correct’ procedures. Others are more straightforward - as Matthew Strugar mentions in his interview with DxE* - and want to prevent the damage to the industry’s reputation and bottom line that whistleblowers can cause. It is baffling, and perhaps telling of its political power, that animal agriculture’s solution to these concerns is to lobby for ag-gag laws instead of improving conditions or investing in marketing.

It is unclear whether this is a smart long-term move for the industry. A study showed that only few people knew about ag-gag laws. However, once people learnt about them (324 U.S. participants were given information about ag-gag legislation vs. 392 participants who were not), they trusted farmers less, perceived farm animal welfare to be lower and were more likely to support stricter laws for protecting farm animals.

Clearly, the work of whistleblowers is important for revealing the mistreatment of animals that agricultural businesses are desperately trying to hide. In a letter to Le Monde denouncing the amendment of article 226-4, French academics noted that whistleblowers promote public interest when they reveal failures of the industry regarding global health, the environment or animal welfare. Furthermore, these issues touch upon our rights to exercise free speech and engage in informed public debates about these issues.

If nothing else, perhaps this article will make you reconsider your perceptions about the agriculture industry and how it treats animals. How can lobbying to hide how animals are treated not make big animal agriculture look guilty?


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