The secrets of meat: Pennsylvania should support investigations of abusive farms

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There is a joke making the rounds that would be pretty funny if it didn't convey a serious truth.

It goes like this:

How many meat-industry executives does it take to screw in a light bulb?

The answer is zero. They want to keep you in the dark.

The vast majority of pigs, chickens and turkeys are confined in cramped warehouses, far removed from public view. Undercover animal-welfare investigators have been able to document horrific abuses and food-safety problems inside many of these factory farms, including some in Pennsylvania.

But rather than reforming themselves to eliminate such abuses, the meat, egg and dairy industries are trying to double-down on secrecy with so-called "ag-gag" legislation, bills that seek to outlaw those undercover investigations.

Such bills have already passed in at least five states and now ag-gag legislation has been introduced in Pennsylvania. House Bill 683, which is awaiting a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee, would make it a felony to record an image inside a factory farm without the owner's consent or to disseminate such an image over the Internet. Freedom of speech be damned.

We should know where our food is coming from. But where these bills have passed, undercover investigations have virtually ceased, eliminating a main source of protection for farm animals and blinding the public to what is happening inside these massive animal warehouses.

It would be different if the government was willing and able to regularly investigate food-safety and animal-abuse problems in today's industrial-scale agriculture. But in reality, the government is dependent on nonprofit animal-welfare agencies to initiate investigations and gather documentation.

For instance, it took an undercover Humane Society of the United States investigator to reveal shocking cases of abuse and unsanitary conditions at a Lancaster County egg facility of Kreider Farms. The investigation, featured on "ABC World News" last year, found dead chickens rotting among egg-laying hens and found other hens trapped in cage wires and feeding machinery.

As a result of another Humane Society investigation last year, nine workers at a Wyoming pork processing facility have been charged with animal cruelty after a video showed them kicking and tossing piglets and failing to euthanize a sow who was gravely injured by a worker while giving birth. Thankfully, the Wyoming legislature had the good sense to reject its own ag-gag bill, as have the legislatures in Arkansas, New Hampshire and New Mexico.

Leading newspapers from coast to coast have railed against the bills. For example, the Los Angeles Times called California's ag-gag legislation "disturbing," while the Nashville Tennessean opined that agribusiness seems more concerned about getting caught than about eliminating abuses.

Still, such bills continue to pop up in state after state.

Some factory-farm operators claim that the undercover investigations infringe on their privacy rights. But their protest rings hollow, especially when you consider that only a tiny fraction of such farms are ever investigated. Wouldn't everyone be better served -- consumers, farm animals and even the farmers themselves -- if agribusinesses cleaned up their act rather than hid their operations behind an iron curtain of secrecy?

Indeed, looked at from the point of view of farmers, the ag-gag bills actually appear self-defeating. Acting like they have something to hide creates the appearance that they really do have something to hide. This is a public-relations fiasco and puts farmers on the wrong side of a First Amendment freedom-of-speech battle.

One would hope that meat, dairy and egg operators would answer to their better angels, do right by the American public, reform their practices and withdraw their support for the bill.

But because that doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon, please contact your representatives in the state House and ask them to reject H.B. 683. Visit www.PAHouse.gov to find out who your representative is and how to contact him or her.

opinion_commentary

Jeffrey Cohan, a resident of Forest Hills, is executive director of Jewish Vegetarians of North America. Christin Bummer is owner and CEO of K9 Kingdom in McCandless.


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