North Carolina law could stymie undercover videos of animal abuse

Gross factory farm footage could be made illegal
Gross factory farm footage could be made illegal

Many people want to know that Wilbur the pig or Nellie the cow have had a decent life before ending up on a plate.

But that's not always the case and it's getting increasingly difficult to know if the animals are being abused in farms.

North Carolina this week became the latest state to pass a law that will make it illegal for anyone to get a job and then secretly make video or audio recordings of what goes on in the workplace.

Experts say that could stymie investigations into food facilities that have unearthed disturbing video footage of cows, pigs, chickens and other animals being raised in cruel conditions in large factory farms. Some of the investigations have sparked change at several large companies.

Most of these videos are made by undercover activists who get access to the factories by getting jobs.

North Carolina's new "ag-gag" law gives businesses the right to sue employees who secretly shoot such videos.

Related: Tyson to phase out antibiotics in chicken

Iowa passed similar legislation in 2012. And North Carolina became the 9th state to pass the law, joining Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Utah, Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota.

There have been a number of high-profile investigations into food facilities in recent years.

Last year, the nation's largest meat producer, Tyson (TSN), overhauled its pig care guidelines after an activist group showed video of a supplier slamming piglets onto the ground.

And at the nation's largest turkey producer, Butterball, several workers were charged and later convicted with animal cruelty after a raid in 2011 by local officials following a video that showed workers stomping on the birds.

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"The conditions in those facilities are sometimes quite problematic," said Susan Kraham, a senior staff attorney for Columbia University's Environmental Law Clinic.

"The response by the industry and state governments to efforts to uncover abuses has been to criminalize the behavior of the undercover investigators," Kraham said.

But the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce, whose members include agriculture giants like Tyson, Smithfield Foods and Cargill, say that ag-gag laws protect against corporate espionage and internal data breaches.

The bills make it illegal to lie on a job application or film on site. That is certain to deter activists from trying to get a job at these facilities and recording factory farm exposes.

Related: McDonald's to cut back on chicken raised on antibiotics

Some fear the law could have a broader reach beyond animal welfare.

Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, says the law threatens to deter not just activists against animal abuse. It could even punish people who expose wrongdoing that could extend to food safety, labor issues and environmental violations, she said.

"Basically, this law blows the whistle on the whistleblower," Meier said.

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