These horrifying images were made by undercover animal-rights activists who gained access to factory farms -- usually by getting themselves hired -- to expose inhumane and illegal activities that have occurred there. Videos like these have been instrumental in raising the public’s awareness about factory-produced meat and eggs, in prosecuting offending farm workers and their employers, and in passing ground-breaking animal-cruelty legislation.
But if some MInnesota lawmakers get their way, the videos themselves -- not the reprehensible activities they document -- may soon become illegal.
H.R.1369 in the Minnesota State House and S.F. 1118 in the State Senate would prohibit recording, possessing, or distributing an image or a sound recorded at an animal facility. It would also outlaw “obtain(ing) access to an animal facility by false pretenses for the purpose of committing an act not authorized by the owner of the animal facility.” The first offense would constitute a gross misdemeanor; the second, a felony.
A similar bill was recently passed in Florida; another is close to becoming law in Iowa.
Critics of these bills accuse them of being unconstitutional because they violate first-amendment rights to free speech and free press. In fact, they claim that if this bill ever became law, it would certainly be struck down in court.
The bills’ opponents also cite the legacy of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s much-lauded 1906 novel that exposed the corruption and horror of turn-of-the-century meat production. Sinclair’s work spurred its readers to demand a safer food system from their government. The result was the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and eventually the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
But, obviously, there’s another side to the story. There are seven Minnesotans in the House and five in the Senate who co-authored these bills. What is their rationale for introducing legislation like this in the state of Minnesota?
One person who works in the state senate (but who wishes to remain anonymous) told me that the objective of S.F. 1118 and its companion house bill is to ensure the safety and security of MInnesota’s food supply. He explained that hog farms, in particular, are vulnerable to biohazards: visitors must shower and wear protective clothing to prevent the spread of infections from one barn to another.
But Bill Marler, renowned food safety expert, attorney and activist, told me that he doubts food safety is the issue.
“In 2008, the videotape of downer cows being dragged to slaughter led to the Westland/Hallmark meat recall,” said Marler. In that case, he said, the 143 million of pounds of potentially unsafe meat being taken off the market was directly attributed to the Humane Society’s secretly recorded video.
“Knowing how our food is produced is always a good thing,” said Marler, who believes that the more information we have about our food supply, the safer it will be.
“I suspect what’s really behind these bills is Big Ag's desire to make it more difficult for the Humane Society or PETA to out animal abuse,” he asserted.
Big Ag. Or as The New York TImes calls it, “the big guns of industrial agriculture: Monsanto, the Farm Bureau, the associations that represent pork producers, dairy farmers and cattlemen, as well as poultry, soybean, and corn growers.” All are staunch supporters of the bills in Minnesota and in every other state considering similar legislation.
You don’t have to look very hard to find Big Ag firmly entrenched in Minnesota’s state legislature. The most obvious example is the house bill's chief author, Rod Hamilton. Representative Hamilton’s bio on the house website states that he works for a farm. If it were more specific, though, it would tell you that he works for Christensen Family Farms, which raises three million pigs a year, making it the third largest pork producer in the U.S. His job? Director of communications -- Christensen’s chief media spokeperson.
Neither Hamilton, his legislative assistant, nor his wife returned my phone calls asking for information about his recently introduced bill.
One of Hamilton’s co-authors, Greg Davids, actually answered his mobile phone when I called. He told me that he was in Dallas trying to catch a flight but had a few minutes to talk.
“Which bill are you asking about? he asked.
“H.R. 1369,” I said.
“Which one is that?”
“It’s the one that would prohibit videotaping or photo...”
“I have NO COMMENT about that!”
One thing I wanted to ask Representative Davids, if our call hadn’t been “dropped,” is what kind of farm he owns in Preston, Minnesota. His bio says he’s “business/farm owner,” but nothing more specific.
The only blank I could fill in was that he used to sell insurance for the Farm Bureau. Okay, so there’s one Big Ag connection. But what about that non-specific “business/farm?”
After my brief conversation with Davids, I called his legislative assistant. She wasn’t in but someone named Katie was filling in for her. She claimed that she didn’t know what kind of farm the representative has. Then I asked if she could call him for me and find out. She said sure.
But when I didn’t hear back from her, I called again. And although she said she talked to him, she still could not tell me anything about his farm.
“Did you ask him?” I said.
“Yes, but we had other things to talk about.”
“I understand, but what did he say when you asked him?”
“He didn’t say anything. We had a lot of other things to discuss.”
I pressed a bit more. “But, Katie,” I pleaded, “why can’t you just tell me what he said when you asked him what kind of farm he has?”
“We had more important things to talk about.”
I was getting frustrated.
“So you had more important things to talk about than answering a question from the press about a bill that Representative Davids is co-author of?”
I knew not to pursue this any further, because I had just listened to an audiotape recording of Davids telling the mayor of Preston, Minnesota, “What I get backed in a corner I start kicking the shit out of people...” And, “I’ve got good attorneys... junk-yard dogs attorneys from Chicago that will rip their eyes out and pee on their brains.”
Seems Davids was a bit miffed over the mayor’s opposition to a tire-burning facility that Davids wanted built in Preston, on property owned by his father-in-law.
So, in the interest of not getting the shit kicked out of me, or having my eyes ripped out, or my brain urinated upon, I let it go.
Three of the bill’s other co-authors -- Tony Cornish, chief of police for Lake Crystal; Dean Urdahl, a retired professor; and Steve Drazkowski, who lists his occupation as “business” -- didn’t seem to have any Big Ag connections. But they also would not return my phone calls.
The last co-author, Representative Paul Anderson, another “farmer,” was scheduled to have a brief phone interview with me. (I promised his assistant a maximum of 10 minutes.) But he never called and did not return my follow-up call.
On the Senate side, the bill's chief author Senator Doug Magnus owns a 1,300-acre farm. It’s used for growing crops now, but was formerly a livestock production operation. Magnus talked about his proposed bill to WCCO’s John Lauritsen, who noted that the legislation would also ban videotaping inside puppy mills, but he declined to talk to me.
One of Magnus’s co-authors, Senator Julie Rosen, was a pharmaceutical sales rep before she ran for elected office. According to her bio, her employers included Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly that manufactures antibiotics used in livestock feed; and American Hoechst Chemical, a division of a German company that describes itself “among the top three suppliers in the pharmaceutical, agricultural, and industrial chemical centers of Europe, the Americas, and Asia.” That’s not just Big Ag. That’s Humongous Ag.
I left a message with Senator Rosen, but she has yet to return my call.
Senator Rod Skoe, another co-author, has a wild-rice and potato farm according to his assistant, who spoke to me briefly by phone and promised that he would pass along my message to his boss. Then he asked me a question:
“What web site do you write for again?”
“Simple, Good and Tasty. It's a Twin-Cities-based site that exists to promote locally-grown and produced food. Food that’s grown and produced in Minnesota.”
“So what does that have to do with this bill?”
"I don't see the connection between that and what this bill is about."
(I paused to gather myself, so that I could answer his question without any hint of sarcasm or derision.)
“Um, well, Minnesota food is what’s being produced inside those animal facilities, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I suppose. I’ll have the senator call you back.”
I'm still waiting.
One more thing: Did I mention that Senator Skoe’s web bio lists his occupation as “farmer?”
The two additional Senators who co-authored S.F. 1118 are Bill Ingebrigtsen, a retired sheriff, and Dan Sparks, a loan officer. Again, no obvious Big Ag connection. So why are they lending their support to this bill?
I’ll probably never know because they wouldn’t return my calls either.
Talk about rejection. No one wanted to talk to me about these bills. Honestly, I approached every one of them in a non-confrontational manner, didn’t take sides, and asked them only to help me understand their reasons for introducing these bills in the Minnesota State legislature.
Christine Coughlin, president of Minnesota Voters for Animal Protection, thinks she knows why everyone was so tight-lipped.
“I think they’ve been bombarded, and frankly surprised, by the overwhelmingly negative reaction to these bills,” she told me.
She appears to be right. Minnesota’s attempt to outlaw videotaping inside animal facilities has gone over like a lead balloon. With the public. And the media. Even conservative daily newspapers in rural Minnesotan counties have come out against it.
“The bill has been widely ridiculed in the press... so maybe it’s no surprise that the authors of the bill, Rep. Rob (sic) Hamilton and Sen. Doug Magnus, wouldn’t speak to City Pages to defend their hideous and unloved offspring.”
See for yourself. Take a look at the long list of articles and editorials written about H.R. 1369 and S.F. 1118, meticulously compiled by Animal Folks Minnesota. No wonder Hamilton and Davids and Magnus, et al want to avoid talking about this. I’m guessing they’re more than a little regretful that they’ve hitched their political careers to an idea that’s been so widely criticized.
If you’d like to add your voice to this debate, contact the lawmakers who co-authored these bills and let them know what you think. Just click on their names, above, and you’ll open their state government web page that lists their contact information.
I’d also suggest that you stay in touch with the Minnesota state representative and senator that represent you and let them know what you think about this proposed legislation. If you’re not sure who they are, you can find out here.
Finally, let us know if this is an issue you care about. Post a comment and tell us that you want to be kept informed about proposed legislation that could have an impact on the food that we eat.
It would really be nice to hear from you.
Shari Manolas Danielson is a frequent contributor to Simple, Good and Tasty. Her last post was Finding Coke in a Co-op: A Lesson in Compromise and Acceptance.