Factory Farms Fancy Secrecy
In a news cycle dominated by the permanent "war on terrorism" and the crisis in the Middle East, this story is an exception. It comes to you from the Midwest -- Illinois to be exact. It's a story about factory farms and how corporate interests are getting more and more concerned that you may find out how they go about their business.
If corporate lobbyists continue to have their way with the Illinois state legislature, it may become as difficult to find out the skinny on factory farming as it has been to ferret out the truth of the Jenin refugee camp invasion or discover how many innocent civilians have been killed by the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan. The public's right to know is under attack both at home and abroad.
Factory farming is a business that often leaves a major mess in its wake. If you are an activist concerned with these issues, you can try lobbying for stricter regulations to protect the "farmed" animals and the environment from contamination. However, owners of these operations do not want the outside world to find out what's going on. A few weeks back, the Illinois House took one step toward that goal, by passing House Bill 5793. By a 118-0 vote, legislators passed a bill making it illegal to photograph or videotape the animals on factory farms without the consent of their owner.
Although the Chicago Tribune reports that the bill is "temporarily stalled" in the state Senate, where it failed to make it out of committee in time for consideration this spring, Don Rolla is still concerned. "The bad news," said Rolla, the executive director of Illinois Humane PAC, "is that the idea seems likely to come back either tacked onto other legislation in coming weeks or on its own next fall."
House Bill 5793 "makes it a crime to be on a farm (or other 'animal facility') and photograph or videotape pigs or any other animals without the consent of the owner if one's intent is to 'damage the enterprise,'" reports the Tribune. The term "animal facilities" is defined as anywhere an animal is "kept, housed, handled, exhibited, bred, raised, or offered for sale or purchase." The Peoria Journal Star claims that "the bill would prohibit state inspectors from taking pictures to document their investigations of these farms."
The Journal Star reports that "The stated need for the law, according to a legislative analysis, is to protect the food supply from terrorists.... The more plausible reason is that opponents of factory farms have been fond of using pictures of pigs raised body to body, or lagoons filled with sewage, to bolster their case."
The Journal Star: "Beyond that, the law will discourage whistleblowers who may be employed on a livestock farm, or otherwise there legally, from photographing abuses. Such pictures have been used before to go after violators. Opponents say people likely will be deterred from filming farms from the public right-of-way, for fear that a broad reading could subject them to criminal penalties."
Over the past several years, animal rights and family farm activists have documented how animals are being treated on factory farms via photos and videotape. This does not please the pork industry, which has used "unusual tactics to intimidate its critics," writes Christopher D. Cook in the September 1999 issue of The Progressive magazine.
In North Carolina according to Cook, Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, headed a study that found "daily whiffs of hog factory waste appear to cause sinus problems, excessive coughing, headaches, nausea, and diarrhea." North Carolina's booming $1.8 billion pork industry began "pressuring Wing and his assistant Susanne Wolf to identify the community -- and, by association, the people -- that participated in the research." The North Carolina Pork Council hired the Hunton & Williams law firm "to secure the researchers records-including documents that could be used to identify study participants who were guaranteed confidentiality."
"If you want to document waste spillage, animal abuse or inhumane conditions on a farm, there's no better way to do it than with photographs," Diane Hatz, until recently head of the factory-farm project for the New York-based Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE), told the Chicago Tribune. "By trying to take away visuals, this legislation is trying to take away a large portion of our ammunition."
Don Rolla: "As part of Humane PAC's efforts to pass legislation to bring an end to the millions of animals suffering in factory farms, I have gathered a number of shocking videos and photos that were taken in undercover efforts. The conditions and the cruelty they show are horrible, and the images in these photos and videos are important for us to have available to show the public. Such videos and photos are the only way to document what we all know takes place on a daily basis! This would impede undercover investigations of inhumane conditions."
A Missouri bill, HB 1794 -- Animal Research and Production Facilities -- has similar intentions and is currently under consideration in the state legislature. The bill "prohibits any person from photographing, videotaping, or otherwise obtaining images from within an animal facility without the written consent of the facility. A person violating this provision of the bill is guilty of a class D felony."
On the face of it, the Illinois bill introduced in February by state Rep. Mary K. O'Brien (D-Coal City) "seems only to remind everyone that laws proscribing burglary, trespassing, sabotage and so on apply also to farms," reports the Tribune. "I have no problem with that," said Karen Hudson, a grain farmer in Peoria County who is heading up GRACE's anti-factory-farm project in Illinois. "I'm not a radical type who believes in vandalism."
However, Hudson worries about the small print that has likely gone unnoticed by Illinois House members. She claims that "the 1,100-word bill is a Trojan Horse because of a 16-word clause making unauthorized farm photography punishable by up to 6 months in jail." That reference, she says, "appears on page 3 in Section 10, Subsection C, paragraph 4 -- an aside buried so deep into the tedious legalese that it's a good bet most lawmakers didn't even see it."
Kevin Semlow, a lobbyist for the Illinois Farm Bureau, which supports the bill, told the Chicago Tribune that the legislation aims to prevent economic espionage. "A lot of these facilities do high-tech biological research," Semlow said "We've had problems with people making videos of copyrighted technologies, such as the way feed systems work for livestock."
What's really going on in Illinois and Missouri is an attempt by the agribusiness giants running America's factory farms to pull the blinds and prevent the dirty truths about their operations from getting to consumers. Most Americans are dead set against cruelty to animals on factory farms and the concomitant devastation of the environment, even if it were to save them a few cents at the market.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.