What Ag-Gag Bills Are and Why They Want To Outlaw The Truth About Animal Abuse

One way or another, you probably have an opinion on the American meat industry, and it’s probably because you have a horrible image seared forever onto your eyeballs like grill marks on a steak. Once upon a time, animal rights activists mainly protested by smashing lab equipment, setting cows free, and picketing circuses into submission, but as the government cracked down on the more radical acts, groups began focusing on a more legal (and often more effective) tactic — infiltrating factory farms, recording what goes on there, and releasing the often-shocking footage to the public.  But a new group of laws, popularly known as “ag-gag bills” (for “agricultural gag”) and currently on the table in eleven states, could make that illegal, too.

Ag-gag bills come in three flavors.  Some say what they mean, and out-and-out prohibit recording video or audio of farming operations without permission.  Others are sneakier — like Vermont’s, which levies a $1,000 fine against anyone who “makes a knowingly false statement or representation as part of an application to be employed at an agricultural facility,” effectively preventing undercover whistleblowers from ever getting in the door.  A third and increasingly popular type allows documentation of cruelty as long as all tapes are turned over to law enforcement within a specific time period (always 24 to 48 hours).  At first glance, this looks progressive, and even helpful — quick turnover means quick action and transparency, right?  But in reality, it’s just another way big operations will be able to appear conscientious while avoiding meaningful change.  One recorded abuse can easily be written off as an isolated incident — Chickens-R-Us apologizes, one employee takes the hit and gets fired and/or charged, and business continues as usual.  It takes much longer than a day to build the kind of case that holds higher-ups responsible or leads to effective overhauls.



Ag-gag, like many monsters, has an even bigger and scarier dad.  Much of the proposed legislation contains ideas and language that can be traced back to a model bill written by a group called the American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC].  ALEC bills itself as “a nonpartisan public-private partnership of America’s state legislators, members of the private sector and the general public” that “works to advance the fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level.” Others, like the Center for Media and Democracy, see it as more of a way for Big Business to undermine the democratic process in order to advance a pro-corporate agenda that includes “major tax loopholes for big industries and the super-rich, proposals to offshore U.S. jobs and gut minimum wage, and efforts to weaken public health, safety, and environmental protections.”  Seen in this light, it’s basically a way for corporations to buy legislation — they donate a bunch of money to ALEC, which uses it to throw conferences where corporate reps and legislators work together to draft generic bills; the legislators then bring those bills back to their home states, customize them, and try to get them passed.  Most ag-gag bills are slightly mutated versions of a 2002 model bill called The Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which aims to classify anyone who “enters an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with the intent to defame the facility or its owner” as a terrorist.

So why would information dissemination count as terrorism? Emily Meredith, press liaison for the industry trade group Animal Agriculture Alliance, gives a few reasons that effectively boil down to one — when people get a chicken’s-eye-view, it hurts the meat industry’s reputation, and everyone suffers, from “farm families who work these farms day in and day out… to provide food to this hungry country and the world” to entire communities that are economically impacted when sales decline, to consumers who might be turned off because sausage-making is ugly no matter how you slice it. As Kelli Ludlum, director of Congressional communications for The American Farm Bureau Federation, told a New York Times reporter, even a “perfect procedure” might seem out of line to someone unfamiliar with farming.



The party line is that whistleblowers aim to turn stomachs and close wallets — other proponents have tried to characterize the opposition as “extremist vegans” and others who “are trying to kill the meat industry.”  But all kinds of people hate these bills for all kinds of reasons. Environmentalists hate them because the broad language of some bills, such as Pennsylvania’s, can be used to prevent photography of fracking and other oil and gas operations (and because it means one less way to call out factory farms for degrading water and air quality and bucking regulations).  Workers’ rights groups fear they’ll lead to workplace discrimination and to lower-level employees being blamed for institutional problems. The National Press Photographers Association has spoken out against them, as have other proponents of First Amendment rights.  And if anyone wants to make sure their meat is handled safely, it’s going to be proud carnivores, right?

Most whistleblowers are associated with or employed by animal rights groups, pretty vital entities in a country where there are literally no federal laws that protect livestock (despite polls showing that most Americans think animals, particularly farm animals, deserve some rights).  Their work makes things definitively better for animals, step by tiny step.  Undercover footage from a Pennsylvania factory helped lead New Jersey lawmakers to ban gestation crates, tiny cages that don’t allow breeding sows to turn around.  Videos from Idaho convinced Kraft Foods to forbid its suppliers from tail-docking dairy cows.



It also has a broader impact.  In 2008, California’s Westland/Hallmark Meat Company recalled 143 million pounds of beef after the Humane Society released vigilante video of plant workers slaughtering and processing “downed cows,” which can pass on mad cow disease.  Four years later, a video by Compassion Over Killing led the USDA to shut down another California plant — one that provided meat to the National School Lunch Program — for the same reason.  And recent undercover investigations in a veal plant and a Butterball turkey factory not only led to several managerial arrests for animal rights violations, but also implicated U.S. Department of Agriculture employees who had turned a blind eye to the abuse (the USDA’s dual role — as agrobusiness promoter AND agrobusiness watchdog — has led to corruption, and new funding cuts won’t help).

You can help, though. If you live in one of the eleven states currently considering ag-gag bills, the ASPCA will let you know which of your legislators you should call, and how to reach her (just last week the Indiana House sent their bill out for further review because of constituent concern). No matter where you live, spread the word. Wyoming’s bill died in committee because of public backlash that everyone’s favorite animal advocate, Bob Barker, helped spearhead all the way from California. And no matter what you eat or why you eat it, educate yourself if it’s important to you! Get all the info you can while it’s still available, and use it to vote with your dollars.



Because there’s a deeper level to all this, too.  Behind all these practical effects is a philosophical principle — that people should be allowed to make informed choices about what we consume, and what we let happen to make this consumption possible (in this spirit, Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy proposes 24/7 live feeds of slaughterhouses and confined-feeding operations, with webstream URLs stamped on your egg carton or bacon bag).  If transparency is bad for business, then something about that business is probably itself bad.  Ag-gag laws will allow abuse to go unchecked.  They’ll lead to disease outbreaks, rivers full of antibiotics, and further corruption, and they’ll yield corporations yet another undeserved inch of the democratic process.  And they’ll remove our ability, as citizens and consumers, to have a conversation about the things that are ostensibly being done in our names.  Which means the meat industry is a bunch of chickens.

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Cara is a former contributing editor for Autostraddle and a current staff writer at Atlas Obscura. She lives in Somerville with her girlfriend, their roommate, and a cat who can flush the toilet, and is generally thinking about gender, sustainable biodiversity, and/or rock & roll music. You can follow her on twitter @cjgiaimo if you want.

Cara has written 113 articles for us.


  1. I agree that people should have all the information they can get in order to be able to make a well-informed decision. But I don’t think pictures of animal cruelty or poor hygiene will keep too many off meat, just like exhibitions of what happens during abortions don’t keep women from doing it if they so want. And let’s not forget those who choose to be in the dark so they can keep their life style.

    • Yeah, Mr. Purdy drew that parallel as well:
      “Opponents might compare this proposal to bills that require women to view images of their fetuses before having an abortion. The resemblance is misleading. Those laws intrude on intimate, difficult decisions involving a constitutional right.

      In contrast, open-slaughterhouse laws would not force anyone to look at anything. They would just increase our resources for thinking and arguing.”

      (from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/09/opinion/open-the-slaughterhouses.html)

    • Exhibitions of ‘what happens during abortions’ are usually heavily photoshopped images of blood and bits of tissue. I guess that could put off a few especially faint hearted people, but it’s nothing on the level of factory farming footage which shows sentient creatures being abused.

    • I actually can think of quite a few people I know, those who are vegetarian, vegan, and more conscious-omnivores, if you will, who cite factory farm imagery as a reason they’ve made their decisions. I think it is powerful, and the idea of dining on another living, breathing creature, no matter how ‘humanely’ raised, is something I do not wish to partake in, personally, and that’s even before I knew how awful the industries could be.

    • There’s a show in the UK, The River Cottage Treatment, where a tv chef with a small farm of his own took a group of people and tried to convince them to buy freerange chickens by bringing them to the factory and freerange farms to see the differences. One woman was really adament that it was more important to her that she could feed her family cheaper on factory chickens, which I was reminded of by your comment.

      She actually changed her mind though after seeing one of the chef’s own chickens, which they’d been helping to look after, get slaughtered. I agree that most people are just really really detached from where their meat comes from, unless it happens in front of their eyes its easy to ignore even graphic tv footage, unfortunately.

  2. great article, thank you! this attempt to get away with cruelty against animals in the name of profit, while destroying the principles of free speech and the right to political protest, is just plain sick.

  3. Thanks for this coverage Cara. I’ve been following this legislation for awhile and it’s incredible to see the uptick in coverage in the past week following the NTYs story. There is a great interview with journalist WIll Potter on Democracy Now for example. (http://www.greenisthenewred.com/blog/democracy-now-debate-ag-gag-laws/6857/)

    Undercover investigative footage is the most powerful tool used to hold big-ag accountable. Clearly they’ve noticed! The move to outlaw undercover investigative footage and trample First Amendment rights is a desperate measure and Americans can see this. Animal rights activists and environmental activists have been faced with increasingly harsher litigation in the past decade for non-violent actions.

    There are so many reasons for transparency including: food safety, animal welfare, worker protection and environmental protection. Furthermore, our industry models are being exported abroad. This conversation is already huge but with the expansion of meat-eating to other countries (For example: China is eating more meat while Americans are eating less) it will only get bigger.

    • Thanks Joe, I just signed it! Also, there are a number of active petitions which address this issue on change.org — just search the site for “ag-gag”! (Warning: once you join this website, you may find yourself spending hours and hours signing petitions, especially since there’s a section for LGBTQI etc. petitions…)

      And big thanks to Cara for bringing more attention to such an important issue with this great article!!

  4. someday i will be able to inform myself about meat/agricultural issues without being flooded by images of either a) carcasses midslaughter or b) fuzzy wuzzy little fluffykins. so aggressively done with the emotional ploy. overexposure has shrived my pathos to nothing.

    • whaaa this is me, idk why it autofilled with a name that’s not mine? serves me right for not paying attention/not logging in properly, i suppose.

  5. As a veterinarian who pledged an oath to protect animal health and welfare, I of course have many opinions on this subject and could babble at length about it. However I am a poor writer, so I will spare everyone, but I will bring up a few points.

    1. These laws and proposed laws are atrocious and should be overturned or defeated. The HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) is at best very misleading, and at worst a very corrupt organization. The one and only service they do to animals is by exposing animal abuse in production facilities, especially the abuse at the Hallmark meat packing company in California. To make this practice illegal is a great disservice.

    2. Education, transparency, and federal/state inspectors are how we protect animals from abuse. The gag laws inhibit transparency, while budget cuts such as the recent sequester, according to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, force furloughs on USDA inspectors. Many of these inspectors are veterinarians who not only inspect meat to make sure it is safe, but make sure animals are being slaughtered humanely. With the sequester I’m not worried about planes falling out of the sky, I’m worried about food and animal safety.

    3. The American farmer and rancher feels like he or she is under attack. Under attack by a general population who has no idea what they do for a living (an estimated 2-3% of Americans are directly involved in agriculture — there are more gays than farmers ya’ll). Under attack by food and fuel prices. Under attack by an economic system that forces the economy of scale upon them, and gives them razor thin margins to live on. They are becoming increasingly more reactive and defensive. They like these proposed gag laws because they believe the end goal of animal rights activists is to eliminate animal agriculture. Anything that hurts animal rights groups is a win for them, they think. But they’re wrong because it gives the appearance that they are not open to transparency. Most farmers and ranchers care for the welfare of their animals. But because of the increasingly polarized nature of our society they batten down the hatches when someone like me comes along and offers suggestions on better handling practices, facilities, procedures etc. So a little understanding, toning down of rhetoric, and a “let’s work together” attitude could go a long way towards making things better for animals everywhere.

    4. I’m a little fed up with animal abuse in our society. Well not just a little bit, a lot. In fact, I made a client cry in the exam room yesterday when she told me to, “cut the BS and give it to her straight,” in regards to what I thought about the condition of her dog.
    Based upon actual measurable numbers plus my own personal experience and bias, I think the beef cow is the best cared for animal in America. Not the dog, not the cat, not the horse and not even little cute bunny rabbits.
    According to the ASPCA, 3 to 4 million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters every year after spending a short or long amount of horrible time in a shelter. Millions more are owned by people who abuse or neglect them. Many are confined to small cages in puppy mills, covered in their own feces, perpetually pregnant (similar to a commercial sow some would say, but the hog is kept cleaner), with little to no human contact. If the puppies they produce are lucky and live, they may have the good fortune of being acquired by a human who takes them to the vet once a year for a rabies shot. Better yet a human who adequately vaccinates them, protects them from parasites, and cares for their dental health and does not allow their mouth to become a festering abscess full of rotten teeth. As a veterinarian I can confidently say that a minority of dogs and cats in this country receive adequate, humane care.
    In contrast, 350 million cattle (if I can do math right) are slaughtered each year. Most humanely. Most receive regular health care throughout their life. A poorly cared for beef cow will not be able to produce and nurse a calf, or survive adverse weather or diseases. A poorly cared for beef cow leads to a shitty rancher out of business real quick. Animal welfare means economic success. “Well Doc she was just kinda standin’ off by herself this mornin’ at the feed bunk, and she did it yesterday too, so I figured I’d bring her in to see you cause somthin’ just ain’t right.” How many adult humans do you know get brought to the doctor if they’re a little bit off for two days? Some dogs or cats maybe, but certainly not humans. As a veterinarian I can confidently say that a majority of beef cattle in America are treated humanely and receive adequate health care. There is certainly room for great improvement, and veterinarians are working daily to make those improvements, but one the whole the cattle of this country are treated better than the fluffy dogs and cats.

    So, to use a phrase I learned from Autostraddle, check your non-agriculture/non-rural America “privilege” when you make judgments about practices and places you don’t know much about. This is not an affront to this article in particular, which is a good article if not a little biased (like my response is biased), but a comment to the attitudes of urban dwellers as a whole.

    Do what you can to produce change in your community. If someone you know is thinking about buying a dog, educate them about puppy mills and the amount of good animals euthanized in our shelters every year. Discourage your friends from docking tails, cropping ears, or getting “one litter” out of their female dog. Take your pet to the vet at least twice a year — try your best to do what they recommend! If you can’t afford basic care, re-think if you should own a pet, or re-think your budget. You are responsible for another living/thinking/feeling being — make its life as good as possible. Support local farmers and ranchers by buying local products when possible. Visit farms on community outreach days. Hug a farmer!!


    • As a current vet student who has done a lot of work in shelters, I’m totally with you on this comment. I do think dairy cows might have it better than beef, but they’re definitely better off than a lot of dogs and cats. I’ve seen dogs with chains embedded in their necks, so covered in fleas that they were anemic and could barely stand, and limping in on a broken, necrotic paw that the owner said “just got like that.” It certainly gives some perspective.

    • Don’t spare us your thoughts, your comment was well written and insightful!

      I had at least one more experience with this than I really wanted to. Dehorning cattle is part of maintaining a herd as otherwise cows end up getting mauled by each other, among other things. This can be important even in an environment where cows have plenty of room and there are literally acres and acres of beautiful mountain pasture to roam freely on. (And in this case there was, the ranch I’m about to talk about is in a gorgeous area and has plenty of space.)

      Anyway… most of the ranchers I know care deeply about the animals in their care and responsibly dehorn their animals very early in their lives when the procedure is simple, easy, minor and doesn’t cause much pain. Sometimes though, someone isn’t responsible and doesn’t dehorn early. Once the horns start growing in earnest removing them is an entirely different process. One I never want to see, or hear, or smell again.

      The only good thing I can report about that day was how disgusted the other ranchers were that this rancher hadn’t been responsible and dehorned at the right age when the procedure is simple and minor.

      I agree it does activists a disservice to pretend that all ranchers are the same as the worst rancher. Just as it would do pet owners a disservice to pretend all pet owners are as terrible as those who mistreat their pets the worst.

      In my experience, good ranchers care. It is a shame that advocates who care so often seem to think ranchers don’t and therefore it’s hard for these two groups to work together. I think a good example of what can happen when farmers and advocates work together is Prop 2 in California, which mandated certain care standards for any chickens that produce eggs, both eggs imported into the state and eggs laid in the state.

    • Oh my god, yes yes yes.
      Also, I want to point out that I’m glad this article didn’t go all ecofeminist on me. Because honestly, that’s the one branch of feminism I detest most. I’m a vegetarian and hope to one day have the self-control to transition to vegan, I foster animals, but hell no am I at all about ecofeminism.

  6. undercover factory videos made me go vegetarian in the seventh grade and i never looked back. i’m so glad you covered this, cara, and with such intellect and brainpower!

    i feel really sad for people who choose to turn a blind eye to this. it’s straight-up denial. i hope these bills don’t pass!

    oh, right, and the best part?

    meat isn’t even that great for humans to consume and the fact that we fight to protect an industry which we rely on too heavily and overconsume from regularly is laughable. could the government pretty pretty please do something that fucking matters?

    • “Could the government pretty pretty please do something that fucking matters?”

      ^^^ YES PLEASE!

  7. I personally speculate why you titled this specific blog
    post, “Autostraddle – What Ag-Gag Bills Are and Why They Want To Outlaw The
    Truth About Animal Abuse”. No matter what I admired
    the article!Thanks for your effort,Burton

  8. Thanks for giving this subject the holistic coverage it deserves! (I recently wrote about it and due to space limitations was left saying, “Like, it’s a bummer, OK?”). Just as many communities stand to benefit if we (insanely) equate journalism with terrorism, preventing Ag-Gag from becoming the norm means burger-eatin’ red staters get clean food, PETA-ish types can know they’ve done their part, and anyone with more specific animal rights concerns like the dog and cat abuse citers above at least have a better chance at getting their grievances in the public eye and hopefully redressed. Also: Chick in a beanie!

  9. Thanks so much for this article, it’s so important! I’m constantly appalled at the amount of animal abuse we just let happen because it’s easier to turn a blind eye than to pay attention and try and fix it.

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