Food Poisoning Bulletin has been reporting about so-called “ag gag” laws for years. These laws are intended to prevent whistleblowers from reporting on animal abuse at factory farms, and levy penalties against those who go undercover to film problems at these facilities. A federal judge, last week, noted “serious concerns and questions” about the constitutionality of Wyoming’s data trespass laws in an order released about a lawsuit against that state and refused to strike claims against the law.
These laws criminalize undercover reporting on farms and in slaughterhouses that reveal animal abuse, food safety violations, and violations of food worker health and safety laws. Center for Food Safety and other groups have sued Wyoming over this law, claiming that the laws punish communication to government agencies. Judge Scott Skavdahl issued a 38-page order in December 2015, refusing to strike the plaintiff’s First and Fourteenth Amendment claims.
Ag gag laws have been written and passed in response to videos released by the Humane Society, Food Integrity Campaign, and Mercy for Animals, among others, showing violent and disturbing abuse of animals at large factory farms and slaughterhouses. As a result of one undercover video released by the Humane Society in 2008, documenting abuse at Hallmark Meat Packing in California, a huge meat recall was ordered by the government. Meat was processed at that plant for Westland Meat Company, which supplied product for the National School Lunch Program. A lawsuit by HSUS against Hallmark Meat Packing stated that that facility “defrauded the federal government by violating and misrepresenting their compliance with the terms of their federal school lunch program contracts requiring the humane handling of animals.”
Judge Skavdahl confirmed that the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the laws in court. His writing said that there were “serious concerns and questions as to the Constitutionality of various provisions of these trespass statutes,” and that the state’s arguments for ag-gag laws “appears to simply be a facade for content or viewpoint discrimination.”
The plaintiffs applauded this move. Cristina Stella, attorney at Center for Food Safety, said, “laws like this one in Wyoming seriously jeopardize public and environmental health by shielding public lands from scrutiny. To stop food borne illness outbreaks we need to increase transparency, not make it illegal for the public to share information about the environment or food safety problems they observe.” Jeff Kerr, general counsel to PETA said, “Americans have a First Amendment right to expose illegal activities and cruelty to animals. Free speech has prevailed against ag gag laws in 20 states so far, and PETA looks forward to seeing Wyoming’s law fall, too.”
Animal abuse is unethical and illegal, and it may have a bearing on food safety. Scientists say that animals raised in stressful environments are more susceptible to disease and bacterial infection. And those pathogenic bacteria can be passed on to people when meat is slaughtered and sold.
Ag-gag laws have been passed in several states, including Idaho, Iowa, Utah, Missouri, North Dakota, Montana, and Kansas. Laws have been either vetoed by the governor or failed to pass in North Carolina, Tennessee, California, and Indiana. Idaho’s law was struck down in a federal court last year as being unconstitutional.