Vet Ethics: Ag-gag laws – the good, the bad and the indifferent

The so-called “ag-gag” legislation is a hot topic in some animal farming and animal activist and circles. Recently passed in several States, ag-gag laws criminalize aspects of undercover filming or photographing in factory farms, puppy-mills, and other animal-producing facilities in the USA. This anti-whistleblower legislation arrives at a time when other whistleblowers, and their revelations on a wide range of matters, have generated worldwide interest. Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning, and WikiLeaks are some of the more famous (or infamous) examples.

The ag-gag laws were passed after shocking footage of animal cruelty in American facilities – not dissimilar to the footage Australians saw in 2011 of the live export trade – emerged into the public domain. In one instance, video was taken of sick cattle in a California beef factory being pushed with forklifts, kicked, hosed, and electric prodded. Apart from the confronting cruelty, the footage caused a sensation because meat from the ill cattle went to school cafeterias, prompting the largest meat recall in US history.

Another public revelation involved footage of turkeys at Butterball farm in North Carolina being beaten with metal bars and dying from festering wounds. This video was taken by an activist from Mercy For Animals who was employed at the turkey farm. There are, of course, many other instances of animal abuse and suffering that have been uncovered, often by people working undercover at the facilities.

Ag gag laws aim to make this kind of activity illegal. The law applies to investigative journalists as well as to animal advocates, and it applies in the case of violations of animal cruelty laws. Typically ag-gag laws create penalties for image collection, applying for jobs on false pretenses (common practice in animal exposes), and for failure to hand over the images within a short period of time (such 24 hours) after acquisition. Also, the laws apply when the intent is to document exploitation of farm workers and threats to food safety.

Clearly, these exposes can result in damage, particularly financial losses, to the enterprises that are targeted. For example, corporations like McDonald’s and Target have withdrawn support for egg farms on which cruelty to birds has been documented and exposed.

An American journalist called Will Potter recently went on a speaking tour of Australia to warn about the spread of ag-gag laws from the US to other countries. In his book (and blog) Green is the New Red, Potter argues that ag-gag legislation essentially originates from and is promoted by big corporations and those, like politicians, who are influenced by them. That is, the fundamental aim of these laws and, he also claims, their associated propaganda campaigns, is to protect the commercial interests of big business against the activities of journalists and groups like the Humane Society, PETA, and Mercy for Animals. Potter claims to have documented how:

corporations created the term ‘eco-terrorism’ in the 1980s and then used public relations campaigns, congressional hearings and ambitious court cases to manufacture what the FBI calls the ‘number one domestic terrorism threat.’ …Perhaps the most dangerous tactic employed by corporations has been the manipulation of post-9/11 fears to enact designer terrorism legislation. Foremost among these new laws is the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA). The act was passed in 2006 at the request of the National Association for Biomedical Research, Fur Commission USA, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Wyeth, United Egg Producers, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and many other corporations and business groups that have a financial stake in silencing animal rights activists (Jurist, 23/1/12).

According to Potter, environmental and animal activists have been painted as a more extreme threat to the American public than both Islamist terrorist groups and right-wing terrorists who, unlike the targets of ag-gag, have actually harmed and killed people.

Assume Will Potter is right that ag-gag laws may be headed for Australia unless there is enough of a public reaction against them. Is that a problem? After all, these laws protect organisations that are legally trying to make a profit. They also protect farmers and their private properties from being entered on false pretences by those whose actions could potentially harm their businesses and their reputations. Furthermore, there are already cruelty laws in place to protect the animals themselves.

Will Potter and others like him have several replies to this line of argument. First, the animals who are illegally treated and abused are virtually invisible to the public. The only people who can routinely gain access to them are those who exploit them for profit. The actions of whistleblowers and undercover investigators, including activists, have been and continue to be indispensable means of revealing the truth about serious abuse. Second, the public have a right to know, and clearly are interested in, how the animals are treated. There is also public interest in food safety.

Third, there is a public interest relating to freedom of speech and discussion. In the US, ag-gag laws have been criticised by jurists and others on grounds relating to the First Amendment. In addition, the workers on the facilities are not infrequently marginalised, poorly paid, and relatively powerless – therefore, revealing the illegal dangers and conditions they face should not be made virtually impossible.

Potter also has a wider point to make. He points out that the ag-gag laws have united a number of different groups in opposition to them. These include the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amnesty International USA, Food and Water Watch, International Labor Rights Forum, National Consumers League, and United Farm Workers.

Now the reason for this alliance is that the ag-gag type of legislation, and the propaganda associated with it (such as labelling animal/environmental activists “terrorists”), is considered a threat in terms broader than the issues of animal abuse and environmental destruction. The threat it is thought to pose is to the availability of information about matters of great public importance – in the face of the overreaching power of corporations whose main interest is maximising financial return.

Comments? Have a topic you would like Simon to examine? Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.