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‘Ag-gag’ bills hurt people and animals

It was only last year that New Mexicans watched in horror as a whistleblower’s undercover video showed dairy workers electrocuting cows, whipping them with chains and carelessly throwing calves headfirst into trucks. When the cows were beaten so badly they couldn’t stand, the dairy workers used machinery to drag them across the ground.

This stomach-churning scene at the Winchester Farm in Dexter was the result of a two-month investigation – showing institutionalized cruelty that was either unnoticed or purposefully ignored by farm managers. The evidence was compelling enough that the farm shut down and four workers were charged with animal cruelty.

But if it’s up to Rick Berman, head of the well-funded, Washington, D.C.-based Center for Consumer Freedom, the type of comprehensive investigation that took place on Winchester Farm should never have happened.

CCF is an infamous industry front group with powerful clients like Big Agriculture, so Berman’s opinion in his Sept. 5 guest column is hardly surprising. Berman asks, should companies be held to blame for the actions of rogue employees? When the employees’ outright abuse and neglect of animals in their care become an inherent part of the companies’ operations, the answer is a resounding “yes.” All too often, Big Ag companies foster a culture of cruelty and negligence on their factory farms, victimizing their workers and animals alike. When these companies fight to keep their operations shrouded in secrecy, they clearly have something to hide.

Rather than take action to reform the system that created the unbearable scene at Winchester Farm, Big Ag’s only goal seems to be stopping the investigations. Instead of bringing the industry in line with mainstream values, its lobbyists promote an ill-willed, irrational and unconstitutional type of anti-whistleblower legislation – sometimes called “ag-gag” bills – meant to silence and hinder investigations on farms so they can continue to put public safety and animal welfare at risk all for the sake of profit.

It’s happening here in New Mexico. In 2013, State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, introduced SB 552, which would have prohibited any photo or video recordings on a farm without consent, or gaining access or employment on a farm under false pretenses. Notably, an almost identical law in Idaho was struck down by a federal judge as unconstitutional, in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In 2015, Sen. Pirtle tried again with a new type of “ag-gag” bill with equally dubious constitutional issues that misleadingly co-opt anti-cruelty rhetoric. SB 221 would have required anyone who records activity suspected to be livestock cruelty to turn over the recording to law enforcement within 24 hours. While on the surface this sounds like an attempt to prevent animal abuse, the mandate is really meant to thwart serious investigations that can take many weeks, sometimes months, to understand the full extent of a problem. This bill was presented as an animal protection measure, when in reality it was intended to obstruct documentation of patterns of abuse. Without the ability to document patterns, the owner of an agricultural facility can inevitably claim the abuse is an isolated incident. The result? A slap on the wrist, while a larger, dangerous problem goes untreated.

In New Mexico, which ranks in the top 10 nationally in milk production and has the largest average dairy herd size in the country, we cannot afford to undermine the ability of whistleblowers to expose serious, institutionalized abuses in our food system. Many small family farms are proud of the transparency of their businesses and see no need for, and in fact oppose, anti-whistleblower laws.

Because when livestock cruelty is uncovered, the results have a significant and welcome ripple effect. Investigations not only protect animal welfare, but also food safety, water quality and workers’ rights – all part of a societal standard that the vast majority wants.

New Mexico’s consumers want a safe and transparent food system, so Big Ag’s anti-whistleblower lobbyists from D.C. should go elsewhere.

Animal Protection Voters is a (501)(c)(4) nonprofit organization in New Mexico that works to enact animal protection legislation and build a strong political voice for animal advocacy in our state.

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