Animal welfare ruling: impact on US meat industry

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

A US court has ruled that the barring of secret filming at agricultural facilities is unconstitutional
A US court has ruled that the barring of secret filming at agricultural facilities is unconstitutional

Related tags: U.s. state, United states

US animal rights organisations have claimed a victory as so-called ‘ag-gag’ laws have been ruled unconstitutional by a judge. 

On 3 August, US District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled the Idaho law barring secret filming of animal abuse at agricultural facilities violates the US First Amendment, which protects free speech. 

The ag-gag law was introduced after campaign group Mercy for Animals released graphic videos​ from an investigation of workers at Bettencourt Dairies' Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen, Idaho. 

The reaction was an ag-gag law in 2014. The Animal Legal Defense Fund challenged the law as unconstitutional. 

‘Ag-gag’ 

The ag-gag laws were attempted in many US states, with many failing to be passed. However, there are a number of states that still have the legislation in some form. 

According to the Human Society of the United States (HSUS) there are currently seven ag-gag laws in US states with businesses pushing for their introduction in other states.

In his 29-page ruling the judge said the “State’s logic is perverse”.​ He ruled that the Idaho State failed to provide a “legitimate explanation” ​why agricultural facilities deserve more protection than other private businesses. 

“Protecting the private interests of a powerful industry, which produces the public’s food supply, against public scrutiny is not a legitimate government interest,”​ the ruling said. 

“Although the State may not agree with the message certain groups seek to convey about Idaho’s agricultural production facilities, such as releasing secretly-recorded videos of animal abuse to the Internet and calling for boycotts, it cannot deny such groups equal protection of the laws in their exercise of their right to free speech.”​ 

The state had argued that agricultural production facilities deserve more protection because agriculture plays such a central role in Idaho’s economy and culture and because animal production facilities are more often targets of undercover investigations. 

Precedent ​ 

The hope of many is that this ruling will set a strong precedent for other challenges to these laws across the country. 

Attorney and author of the Whistleblower's Handbook Stephen Kohn has supported the ruling. 

“When employees in the food industry reveal truths, such as animal mistreatment, safety violations, health threats, they must be protected and celebrated—not jailed and fined,”​ he said. 

“Whistleblowers risk their reputations and careers, and sometimes even put their lives in jeopardy when they report wrongdoing.”​ 

Nathan Runkle, president of Mercy For Animals (MFA), which is well known for its undercover investigations and promotes a vegetarian and vegan lifestyle, said it was a victory for the constitution, animals and consumers. 

He described the ruling as “the first step towards restoring transparency in US food production”.​ He also called the ruling a “wake-up” ​call for the meat industry that keeping consumers in the dark over where there food comes from “will not be tolerated”.​ 

‘Health and safety’​ 

“We hope that dangerous ag-gag laws enacted in other states will be swiftly struck down as a result. The freedom to openly discuss cruelty and corruption in our food supply is paramount to protecting the health and safety of the American people.”​ 

MFA said it will be resuming its undercover investigations in Idaho. 

HSUS said the ruling was good news as the public have the right to know how their food is produced. 

In his blog Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS, said: “It’s the first judicial ruling on the merits of a series of statutes manufactured by the agribusiness lobby to stop undercover investigators from exposing harsh and sometimes illegal practices toward animals.”​ 

He said HSUS has been working in state legislatures to block these attempts to introduce “ag-gag” bills and has helped defeat two-dozen the last two years.

He added: “But seven ag-gag laws remain on the books, and agribusiness is still pushing these measures in other states. This court’s powerful ruling should dramatically influence the trajectory of the ag-gag debate, as we continue to lead the effort to block additional measures from being enshrined in law.”​ 

Related topics: Meat

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