Backers of the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation anti-videoing legislation — “ag-gag” — have already lost the war, even if the legislation passes. Especially if it passes.
Their best hope is to change strategy.
Senate Bill 1337, which has passed the Senate, bars a person who “without the facility owner’s express consent or pursuant to judicial process or statutory authorization, makes audio or video recordings of the conduct of an agricultural production facility’s operations.” More specifically, it’s intended to ban (though various existing laws already theoretically do) the videotaping of what happens to livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations.
This is significant in Idaho, home to some very large CAFO operations in the Magic Valley and southwest. The new bill would punish violators with up to a year in jail or a $5,000 fine; critics note that’s the same as the state penalty for animal abuse.
Similar legislation has been proposed, most often failing to pass, in more than a dozen states; a Utah law is being challenged in the courts.
The Idaho bill was specifically prompted by a video shot in 2012 at Bettencourt Dairy at Hansen, showing workers beating on livestock. Last week another video shot at an Idaho CAFO, which added animal sexual abuse to the mix, was released. Both have had many, many views, and they’ve gone viral on social media.
We can’t know if the videos alone would have generated massive international attention. We do know the videos, combined with legislation to ban shooting more of them, has sent interest in the subject sky high in news reports nationally and overseas.
The story is irresistible: An attempt to keep the lid on what people have already seen. But memories aren’t so easily erased. Nor is the technology, which keeps moving in the direction of disclosure, as privacy advocates regularly remind us.
Among other responses to the bill are petitions — some inside Idaho, some by national animal advocacy groups. Petitions usually do little by themselves, but they can assist organization efforts, and they keep the subject visible.
Not only are smaller and relatively hard-core groups like Mercy for Animals, which released the Bettencourt videos, involved in this, but also larger and better-funded groups like the Humane Society of the United States. The subject of CAFO livestock has gone mainstream.
If you doubt that, watch the latest series offering from Netflix: The satirical but pointed “Farmed and Dangerous.” The initial plot hook involves an exploding cow. Once issues like this get into cultural discussion, national regulation and legislation may, in time, follow. It’s in the spotlight now.
The Magic Valley has benefited recently from arrival of a number of food processors who came there largely because of the easy supply of dairy products. Don’t be surprised if boycotts of some of them start — and lead to business responses. To see this playing out, Google the Wiese Brothers Farms in Wisconsin and read about the videos and other reports that led a frozen pizza company to cut all ties with them.
Nor is that all. If SB 1337 is signed into law (as seems likely), watch for this: An activist who deliberately violates it, shooting more video, intending to get caught, and insisting on a very public trial that could draw more national and international attention, kicking in the cycle all over again.
The problem for livestock operations is not insoluble. The simplest out is to improve and closely monitor operations, then throw open the doors for public viewing.
Some CAFO advocates have argued that much of what has been shown on the videos has been unusual aberrations, that most livestock is treated better before slaughter than the videos suggest. An open-door policy would be the one practical way to prove it.
Some of what inevitably happens in the best of meat processing businesses is of course difficult for many people to stomach, but the operators could fairly argue that if you want your meat at the supermarket, this is how it has to get there. Since most people do want their steaks and burgers, the argument might settle down, on at least higher ground than it occupies now.
Legislation has its uses. But CAFOs here have among other things a public relations problem, and these kinds of laws seldom are much help with that.
* Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor, author of The Idaho Political Field Guide, edits the Idaho Weekly Briefing, and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.