March 18, 2013

Across the country, bills seek end to animal abuse videos

Backers claim their goal is to act quickly, but animal welfare groups say it takes time to build a case.

The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An undercover video that showed California cows struggling to stand as they were prodded to slaughter by forklifts led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. In Vermont, a video of veal calves skinned alive and tossed like sacks of potatoes ended with the plant’s closure and criminal convictions.

click image to enlarge

In an April 22, 2010, image from video, a Hallmark Meat Packing slaughter plant worker in Chino, Calif., uses a forklift to try to prod a sick cow to its feet. Legislators across the U.S. are introducing laws making it harder for animal welfare advocates to investigate cruelty and food safety cases.

Humane Society of the United States via The Associated Press

Now in a pushback led by the meat and poultry industries, state legislators across the country are introducing laws making it harder for animal welfare advocates to investigate cruelty and food safety cases.

Some bills make it illegal to take photos at a farming operation. Others make it a crime for someone such as an animal welfare advocate to lie on an application to get a job at a plant.

TIME LIMIT ON GATHERING EVIDENCE

Bills pending in California, Nebraska and Tennessee require anyone collecting evidence of abuse to turn it over to law enforcement in 24 to 48 hours. Advocates say this doesn’t allow enough time to document illegal activity under federal humane handling and food safety laws.

“Folks in the agriculture community and folks from some of the humane organizations share the same concerns about animal cruelty,” said Mike Zimmerman, chief of staff for Assembly Member Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, whose bill was unveiled last week. “If there’s abuse taking place, there is no sense in letting it continue so you can make a video.”

Patterson’s bill, sponsored by the California Cattlemen’s Association, would make failing to turn over video of abuse to law enforcement within 48 hours an infraction punishable by a fine.

Critics say the bills are an effort to deny consumers the ability to know how their food is produced.

“The meat industry’s mantra is always that these are isolated cases, but the purpose of these bills is to prevent any pattern of abuse from being documented,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States.

In Indiana, Arkansas and Pennsylvania, it would be a crime to make videos at agricultural operations.

The goal of the California bill, industry representatives say, is to halt abuses quickly and get video evidence to government regulators within two days, not to impede animal welfare groups’ undercover investigations.

SUPPORTERS: A MATTER OF PRIVACY

“The people doing this aren’t cops, so I wouldn’t think it’s their job to build a case. The goal for all of us is to reduce instances of animal abuse,” said David Daley, a Cattlemen vice president and California State University-Chico agricultural science professor.

Formal opposition to the California bill comes from the ASPCA, the Teamsters, the HSUS and dozens of others. They say these attempts by the agriculture industry to stop investigations are a part of a nationwide agenda set by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank backed by business interests.

ALEC has labeled those who interfere with animal operations “terrorists,” though a spokesman said he wishes now that the organization had called its legislation the “Freedom to Farm Act” rather than the “Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act.”

“It’s about personal property rights or the individual right to privacy,” said the spokesman, Bill Meierling.

Animal welfare advocates say all of the focus on secrecy is energy misspent. “I wish the cattlemen actually wanted to stop cruelty, not the documenting of cruelty,” said HSUS California director Jennifer Fearing.

Advocates say law enforcement agencies do not have the time or inclination to work complex animal abuse and food safety cases, and that USDA inspectors in slaughter plants have turned a blind eye to abuse.

When a USDA inspector at the Vermont plant was heard in 2009 coaching a plant worker on how to avoid being shut down, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called the conduct “inexcusable.”

(Continued on page 2)

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