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Farm stakeholder summit debates hidden video bills
D.C. Correspondent

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Recently, laws have been introduced in many states that limit access and exposure of agriculture facilities. These videos, and communicating with the public, were the focus of the annual Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholder summit in Washington, D.C. last week.

These laws are a result of undercover videos that have been released to the public, often by members of animal rights groups.

So far, eight states have some form of the law, limiting recording and photography of agriculture without permission of the business owners. Iowa has the most detailed law so far, said Joe Miller, general counsel and VP of Environment for Rose Acre Farms. The Iowa law goes beyond the individual who makes the illegal recording to include the person or group, including media, which may be publishing the illegally obtained videos.

The limitations of the laws have caused proponents to call the law the “Ag Gag.” People are arguing that they have a right to know where their food comes from, if farmers had nothing to hide the law would be unnecessary, and there is a first amendment right to freedom of speech that is being curtailed by the laws.

“Most states have whistle-blower statutes already in place to protect whistle-blowers,” he said.

Rather than stopping whistle-blowing, the laws make it illegal for people to misrepresent themselves when trying to get a job in agriculture.

“There are laws … you can’t discriminate because of religion or sexual orientation, but politics is not one of the protected categories,” Miller said.

Rose Acre Farms ask all applicants if they are associated with animal rights groups. If applicants select yes, they aren’t hired. If applicants select no, but are, they are misrepresenting themselves, Miller said.

“There’s no constitutional right to know where your food comes from,” Miller said. “If you want to know where your food comes from, grow it.”

He added that livestock operations are already one of the most regulated industries in the United States.
Small farming operations don’t have public relations departments to fight back against undercover videos, which are edited to show the most shocking images, Miller said. 

These videos, shown to people who may not know that a recently slaughtered cow might kick it’s hind leg, can be shocking when no explanation is offered with the images.

Rose Acre Farms has had cameras on their property for years. When the cameras are working, the video streams live to the company website, Miller said.

“It’s pretty boring,” he added. But even with the cameras in place, animal activists say the cameras are strategically placed so the abuse is hidden.

“Most farmers have nothing to hide. No act prohibits reporting of animal abuse. Most require reporting of animal abuse,” Miller said. “But businesses have a right to privacy.
“You do have a right to free speech, but you don’t have the right to infringe on someone else’s rights to do it.”

Steve Sayer, former food and safety occupational consultant at
Hallmark/Westland Meat Company, was another speaker at the summit. When he saw the video of the animal abuse at the
Hallmark property in 2008, he was as horrified as everyone else. He had no idea how long it had been happening. After an intense investigation by the government, it was discovered most of the employees were not aware of or participating in the animal abuse.
Without the undercover video, Sayer said he does not know how long it could have taken before the abuse was discovered.

Miller said Hallmark/Westland was one of the few times the undercover videos resulted in convictions.

Adding some transparency to the industry would help ease the public’s concerns, Miller said.

“They don’t need to understand us. We need to understand them,” he said. “We have to make sure they trust (our product).”