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Update on Minnesota ag-gag bill

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Update Fall, 2011

BACKGROUND – MINNESOTA “AG-GAG” BILL
2011 LEGISLATIVE SESSION

During Minnesota’s 2011 state legislative session, a bill was introduced in the House and Senate which would criminalize the act of “blowing the whistle” on animal cruelty, food safety problems, or labor abuses inside animal facilities by making it a crime to take photos, video or sound inside such facilities, without the permission of the owner. The bill defines an ‘animal facility’ as farming operations, research facilities, veterinary offices, animal pounds or shelters, pet stores, boarding kennels and commercial kennels. Further, the bill makes it illegal for news media to possess or distribute these images. Similar bills were introduced in Florida, Iowa, and New York and were dubbed “ag-gag” laws by Mark Bittman, a respected food journalist and author.

In Minnesota, House File 1369 was introduced by Representative Rod Hamilton (R), District 22B, Chair of the Agriculture Committee, Majority Whip, and Senate File 1118 was introduced by Senator Doug Magnus (R), District 22, Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Assistant Majority Leader. Both bills failed to get a hearing and the 2011 legislative session ended without passage. As Minnesota functions on a two-year legislative cycle, the ag-gag bill could still be heard and voted on in the 2012 session. More information on Minnesota’s ag-gag bill is here.

BEHIND THE FAILURE TO PASS AG-GAG
SPRING, 2011

Industrial agriculture, or ‘Big Ag,’ has powerful lobbying organizations in Washington, DC and in state capitols around the country.  Over the last few years, Big Ag has been stung by undercover video recordings, which show examples of egregious animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, and environmental degradation on a few farms. The efforts to ban such whistle-blowing activities are an attempt to prevent more investigations like the Humane Society of the Unites States’ exposés of egg producers (Rembrandt, Rose Acre, and Cal-Maine), turkey hatcheries (Willmar Poultry), pork producers (Smithfield Foods) and their 2008 investigation of a cow slaughter plant in California that led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Ag-gag bills are a reaction to the bad publicity that erupts whenever a new undercover video is released. But in spite of Big Ag’s resources in Minnesota, the reaction to the ag-gag bills here was overwhelmingly negative.

In April, editors at the New Ulm Journal, based in the heart of livestock farming country, noted in commentary titled “Don’t Punish Whistleblowers“:

“These bills are troubling not only to animal protection activists, but also to those concerned with food safety, labor issues, free speech, and freedom of the press. The bills would apply equally to journalists, activists and employees. By prohibiting any type of undercover recordings, a farm’s own employees would be prohibited from attempting to record food safety violations, labor violations, sexual harassment incidents or other illegal activity…… Proponents of the bills claim that they are necessary to protect agricultural interests, and if animal cruelty or any illegal activity is taking place at a facility, the employees can notify authorities. There are several problems with this argument. Notifying authorities and waiting for authorities to get either a warrant or permission to enter the premises gives the wrongdoers a chance to cover up the problem. Cruel practices that are legal will likely not be reported or exposed. Also, employees won’t report themselves to authorities and might be hesitant to report their co-workers and supervisors.”

Editors at the Fairmont Sentinel, another rural MN newspaper, also rejected the bill on the grounds that it’s not going to stop animal protection activists. They also argued that good farmers, who are the vast majority, have nothing to fear from a free press. Even the Minnesota Pork Producers stand opposed to the section of the bill which forbids undercover videotaping in animal facilities, saying it, “goes too far”.  And the American Civil Liberties Union of MN said the bill is, ‘clearly unconstitutional’. Less than a month after the bill had been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature, two legislators who initially co-sponsored the bill removed their names as sponsors: Senator Rosen and Representative Dettmer. Bad publicity and organized criticism coming from multiple fronts, including media, animal protection activists, environmental groups, food safety advocates, and local farmers, likely led to legislative inaction.

BILL SPONSOR, HAMILTON, STILL DEFENDING HIS BILL
SUMMER, 2011

Though ag-gag bills did not pass during 2011’s legislative session, it would be premature to consider the issue dead. Minnesota functions on a two-year legislative cycle, and the bills could still be heard and voted on in the 2012 session. The sponsor of the ag-gag bill in the Minnesota House, Representative Rodney Hamilton (R) District 22B, lists his occupation as “pork producer,” and he works as a communications director for the third largest pork producer in the country. In July and August, the debate surfaced again in a flurry of letters to the editor in the local paper (Worthington Globe) in Hamilton’s home district in southern Minnesota. Opponents of the bill in Hamilton’s district, including a local farmer, again raised four key points:

1. The bill eliminates a key mechanism used to document and prosecute abuse against employees, animals, and the environment in farm operations.

2. The bill does nothing to insure food safety for consumers.

3. The bill’s attempt to criminalize media who possess, distribute or disseminate whistle-blower findings is unconstitutional as it violates the First Amendment.

4. The great majority of Minnesota farmers having nothing to fear from whistleblowers because they do not run abusive, unsanitary, unsafe operations.

In response to this current criticism, Hamilton wrote in his own letter that the ag-gag bill is necessary for two reasons:

1. Undocumented visitors break bio-security protocols and jeopardize food supply safety.

2. Whistleblowers are just as guilty of animal abuse as abusers are, because they do not report what they see right away.

Bio-security protocol is a critical issue for farms of all sizes, and certainly undocumented visitors increase infection risks.  Interestingly,research shows that visiting veterinarians often pose the biggest threat of introducing infection, and that employees frequently ignore bio-security protocol and procedures. But is this risk the real reason for the bill? If so, why not a bill that simply restricts access to farms to those who have proper bio-security protocol training? As for whistleblowers’ alleged guilt for not immediately reporting animal abuse they observe, reasonable voters across the spectrum of special interests recognize that collecting and compiling credible, actionable evidence is the whistleblower’s primary motivation.

In spite of the weakness of Hamilton’s arguments, it’s clear that he’s still standing behind his bill. And this makes it even more clear that we must be vigilant in 2012.

Here are ways you can help oppose the Minnesota ag gag bill– please take action today.

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