Pennsylvania's legislature closed out its fall session this week by killing the state's proposed ag-gag bill, meant to ban activists and journalists from exposing animal cruelty at factory farms. Pennsylvania was the last of ten states to introduce bills of this kind for this year - and one of nine states to kill the bills. Only one state passed a proposed ag-gag bill this year: Idaho.
Big Dairy rules the agricultural sector in Idaho - they played a key role in drafting the ag-gag bill and made campaign contributions to 12 of the 23 senators who voted in favor of the bill. Dairy is one of the largest economic drivers in Idaho - according to the Idaho Dairymen's Association, the industry provides 23,000 jobs and there are 553,681 milk cows in the state's 526 dairy facilities. Idaho dairy farmers produce more milk and cheese than almost any state in the country - it's ranked third in terms of production. According to NPR's StateImpact report, revenue from the sale of dairy products surpassed the revenue from the sale of meat animals in 2004. Now, dairy is the largest single source of revenue of any agricultural product in the state.
In 2012, an undercover investigation by animal rights activists from the organization Mercy for Animals revealed horrific animal abuse at Bettencourt Dairies, one of Idaho's largest dairy operations. The video showed workers beating, stomping on and even sexually abusing cows.
The video prompted widespread backlash, both from animal activists and from the state's dairymen - in response to the video, the Dairy industry drafted the ag-gag bill which was signed into law in February by Idaho Gov. C.L. Otter.
"Instead of making much needed reforms, the industry's' response has been to try to keep Americans in the dark by pushing anti-whistleblower ag-gag bills," Dominguez said.
But that hasn't been true in all states. In fact in the nine states that rejected ag-gag legislation, there was more input from other industries, meaning the livestock industries had less power, according to Matt Dominguez of The Humane Society of the United States' Farm Animal Protection division.
"In all of the other states, the matchup was more fair - though not even," Dominguez told The Dodo. He said that lobbyists fighting against ag-gag bills have a fighting chance in these states.
Often criticized as a violation of the first amendment, ag-gag bills are a method of silencing whistleblowers and cutting off access to journalists - not to mention letting animal cruelty go unreported. In the four states where anti-whistleblower laws are in effect (Idaho, Iowa, Utah and Missouri), anyone who does reveal animal abuse is punished harsher than someone who abuses animals.
Though much of the public remains unaware of the realities of the food industry, public opinion remains firmly in favor of animal protection. In one 2007 survey conducted by the Farm Bureau, 95 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that "farm animals deserve to be well cared for." Another 2012 survey conducted by the ASPCA found that 71 percent of respondents supported undercover investigative efforts to expose farm animal abuse on industrial farms.
There has even been pushback within the industry, from agricultural leaders who believe that ag-gag legislation is the wrong way to address problems in farming. Last year in the pages of a trade magazine called MeatingPlace, Richard Raymond, former undersecretary of agriculture for food safety, said: "The industry needs to stop defending the bad actors that are in their business, and it needs to stop clamoring for ‘Ag Gag' laws that seem to shout out that you have something to hide."
In that same trade magazine, Candace Croney, Director of Purdue University's Center for Animal Welfare Sciences, was asked whether the agriculture industry should give up on on ag-gag legislation last year. She responded by saying, "Yes. No matter what the intention, it looks like the industry has something to hide."