Wednesday, February 26, 2014

‘Ag-gag’ bill moves toward passage

Local delegation split on controversial proposal

Express Staff Writer

    With the support of Blaine County’s two Idaho House members, a so-called “ag-gag” bill appears headed toward becoming law.
    The Agriculture Protection Act, SB 1337, would create the misdemeanor crime of “interference with agricultural production” by criminalizing gaining employment at agricultural facilities through false pretense, the unauthorized filming of operations there or obtaining records of those operations by misrepresentation or trespass. It provides a punishment of up to one year in jail and/or a fine of up to $5,000.
    The bill was passed by the House Agricultural Affairs committee last week by a vote of 13-1 and was scheduled for a vote in the full House today, Feb. 26. The Senate passed the bill two weeks ago by a vote of 23-10, with Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, voting against it.

    The bill was prompted by the public release in October 2012 of undercover video footage of workers mistreating cows at a Bettencourt Dairies facility in Hansen, east of Twin Falls. The video, shot by an activist with Los Angeles-based nonprofit Mercy for Animals, showed workers beating and kicking cows, stomping on a cow’s back and dragging a live cow by the neck with a tractor.
    A subsequent criminal investigation resulted in the issuance of three arrest warrants of Bettencourt employees on state animal-cruelty charges. One suspect was convicted and two fled. The dairy fired five employees linked to the video.
    Rep. Steven Miller, R-Fairfield, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said the bill was motivated not so much by the videotaping but by the animal-rights organization’s effort to bring economic harm to Bettencourt Dairies. After it posted video footage of the alleged abuse, Mercy for Animals held press conferences in several cities around the country at which it urged Burger King, Wendy’s and In-N-Out Burger to cut their ties with Bettencourt Dairies and to implement a strict animal-abuse policy.
    “If they had gotten the milk buyers to stop buying milk, that would have been an enormous economic disaster to the dairy,” Miller said.
    Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, said she has consistently supported animal-protection measures, but thinks Mercy for Animals went too far in this case.
    “The stated reason for the video in the Bettencourt case was to expose and end animal abuse. I think they had accomplished it in this case because those involved were fired, charged and convicted,” Pence stated in a recent newsletter. “The owner provided a more rigorous training regimen for all 500 employees and supervisory personnel. He installed his own surveillance cameras to be better able to insure proper treatment was occurring. If things had ended here I don't think this bill would ever have surfaced. By releasing the footage to the Internet, with petitions calling for a boycott of products of any company that bought meat or milk from Bettencourt Dairy, the organizations involved then crossed the ethical line for me. The goal of changing behavior then became ruining a business.”

Animal abuse runs rampant at dairy factory farms in Idaho and across the nation.”
Nathan Runkle
Mercy for Animals executive director

    Vandhana Bala, general counsel with Mercy for Animals, acknowledged that the group urged Burger King, Wendy’s and In-N-Out Burger to cut ties with Bettencourt Dairy and other producers accused of animal abuse, but said the group never advocated a consumer boycott.
    Pence said she is aware of the support for animal rights among her political base in the northern part of District 26. She said she made her decision based on ethical rather than political considerations.
    Miller said he thinks the kind of abuse depicted in the video is uncommon at dairies and other animal-industry facilities in Idaho.
    “I know some of these guys and I’ve been to a lot of dairies,” he said. “There’s not an owner out there who would tolerate this sort of thing.”
    In a statement posted on the Bettencourt Dairies website shortly after the video was released, owners Luis and Sharon Bettencourt said, “We have been in business for over 30 years and are devastated this took place. As dairy owners we are aware that incidents take place, and we voice that we do not tolerate animal abuse. We wish every dairy employee would take the oath of treating our [sic] animals to the highest standards that we do, and treat them the way they would their animals, and family.”
    But Mercy for Animals Executive Director Nathan Runkle said his organization has turned up cases of abuse at dairies and other large animal-product facilities with alarming regularity. He said Mercy for Animals has conducted four undercover investigations at large dairies across the country—in Idaho, Ohio, Wisconsin and New York. He said all the sites were chosen at random, and all four investigations resulted in animal-cruelty charges.
    “Animal abuse runs rampant at dairy factory farms in Idaho and across the nation,” Runkle said. “At each big dairy farm that we’ve pointed a camera at, we’ve found workers beating animals, jumping on them, dragging them with a tractor or stabbing them with pitchforks.
    “It is an inherently cruel system to keep these animals in a factory-farm environment. It’s sort of a race to the bottom with profits being the driving motivation, not animal welfare.
    “We believe that the dairy industry knows that this abuse is endemic at factory farms, which is why they want to conceal it from the public with these despicable ag-gag bills.”
    Runkle said prosecutors rely on video evidence from undercover investigations to bring animal-cruelty charges.
    Under Idaho law, State Department of Agriculture investigators are empowered to enter any premises where animals are kept, with the permission of the owner, “where probable cause exists.” If permission is not granted, the department can seek assistance from a sheriff or local police.
    State Department of Agriculture Deputy Director Brian Oakey said the department regularly conducts investigations for sanitation and waste containment, and if investigators see anything suspicious, they can conduct an investigation regarding potential animal abuse. However, he said most animal-abuse investigations are generated by complaints from the public.
    Oakey said the Bettencourt Dairies video was the first undercover video to come to light since he began working for the department in 2004. He said the department does not have a position on whether a continuing ability to legally create such videos would be helpful to its investigations.
    Six states have enacted legislation prohibiting unauthorized documentation of animal treatment at commercial facilities. Bills were introduced in 11 more states last year, but all were defeated.
    “There has been a real push-back from consumers who want more transparency, not less, in how their food is produced,” Runkle said.
    According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 80 organizations involved in a wide variety of causes have signed on to a statement of opposition to “proposed whistleblower suppression laws, known as ‘ag-gag’ bills,” being introduced in states around the country.
    The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho has expressed opposition to the Idaho bill, contending that it would violate the First Amendment and that it would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism regarding both animal abuse and consumer safety.
    “This bill … raises the issue of selective enforcement on speech,” the group states on its website.
    Mercy for Animals counsel Bala said that if SB 1337 becomes law, her organization is likely to challenge it in federal court on First Amendment grounds.

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