It seems that in Utah, investigative journalism is a thing of the past.
Utah has passed legislation deeming undercover surveys of agricultural enterprises illegal, joining Iowa on the short list of states to do so. Now, under state law, taking, possessing, and distributing photos, video, or audio of factory farms, or attempting to gain entrance to the farms “under false pretenses” is punishable by up to a year in jail or a 1,000 dollar fine.
The bill, now popularly referred to as the ‘ag-gag bill,’ was signed into action by Governor Gary Herbert, whose office has claimed that the legislation aims to prevent whistleblowers from unfairly damaging farming operations.
“These individuals and organizations have done more of a disservice than anything positive,” said Sterling Brown, vice president of public policy for the Utah Farm Bureau. “There’s a proven way for these operations to be investigated. But to intentionally be hired by a farm or ranch for the purpose of making undercover video or sound recordings is not, we feel, a professional or accurate way of doing it.”
On the flipside of the issue, animal activists, including actress and Utah resident Katherine Heigl, have called the bill an assault on consumer and animal protection, and have urged legislators to repeal the measure.
“By enacting a law that criminalizes undercover investigations revealing cruelty to animals, corporate corruption, unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, or food safety issues at factory farms, Governor Herbert has helped turn factory farms in the state into safe havens for criminal and unethical conduct,” said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, an organization that has conducted several unauthorized investigations of factory farms. “Consumers have a right to know how their food is being produced and how animals on modern farms are treated so they can make informed choices,” he added. “But now, due to this misguided law, consumers would be wise [to] assume that food produced on Utah farms is the product of systematic cruelty and corruption.”
Similar bills are currently being discussed in Minnesota, Nebraska, Missouri, Texas, New York, and Tennessee.
The ‘ag-gag’ issue first cropped up back in September, when legislators in New York and Iowa pushed for adoption of the bill. While the measure fell through in New York, as well as three other states that introduced the bill, the proposal eventually passed in Iowa, making the state the first to adopt such legislature.
The intent is fairly clear in a state with an agriculture-heavy economy. In the past, investigations have revealed inhumane and even illegal practices on factory farms, leaving a trial of financial and legal messes for offending farm owners and corporations. Photos and videos have surfaced of animals being mutilated, kept in unsanitary conditions, and otherwise unethically treated, while some doctors have linked antibiotics used on animals to superbugs in humans.
For now, activists are urging residents of Utah and Iowa, as well as states still deliberating over similar bills, to contact legislators and demand protection for animals, consumers, and the idea of transparency in the public market.
Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Piglet_2_USDA.jpg