Last year, Big Ag decided to fight back. But not by playing a kinder, gentler game in search of better publicity. Instead, it sought to make criminals of the people exposing its underbelly.

By 2012, Iowa was taking a beat-down.

Chickens kept in confining cages.
The Humane Society of the U.S.
Chickens kept in confining cages.
Pigs inside a slaughterhouse.
Mercy For Animals
Pigs inside a slaughterhouse.

Its massive egg farms were the subject of online exposés. Its hog factories were portrayed as porcine versions of puppy mills, where sows are housed in two-by-seven-foot "gestation crates," their lone options in life being to stand up, lie down, or give birth.

Costco no longer bought from farms using the crates. Companies like McDonald's, Kroger, and Safeway were in the process of booting them from their supply chains.

For the state's agricultural interests, it was a public-relations nightmare.

Worse, America's appetite was also shifting. Vegetarianism and veganism were on the ascent. The foodie movement had turned to artisanal meat, mostly local and raised by more altruistic hands.

Factory farms still produce more than 90 percent of the country's food supply, but Big Ag could do little to stop the young, urban, educated, and moneyed from buying elsewhere. And then there were the videos constantly playing on YouTube, illuminating its sins.

So Iowa decided to outlaw the likes of Cody Carlson.

Last year, the state made it illegal to lie on a job application regarding association with an animal-rights group. It also banned the filming of farms without an owner's consent.

The law was backed by Iowa's largest ag forces, including Monsanto, DuPont, and Iowa Select, the state's largest hog producer, which had been stung by an undercover Mercy video a year earlier.

The bill flew through the Legislature in a matter of hours, effectively making exposing cruelty a greater crime than abuse itself. Those found guilty faced up to a year in jail, with felony charges for repeat offenses.

Mary Beth Sweetland heads the Humane Society's investigative unit. She won't speak to the nature of her operation or its people or methods for fear of tipping her hand. But Sweetland readily admits she no longer targets Iowa.

After Iowa passed its law, Missouri and Utah followed, joining Kansas, Montana, and North Dakota, which had passed similar statutes two decades earlier, when a more violent strain of activists threatened arson at animal-testing labs. Other "ag-gag" bills have since appeared on dockets in 10 states, from California to Florida.

The bills tend to be variations of the Iowa law, combo platters of video bans and the criminalization of job-application lies. Most also mandate that anyone with evidence of abuse hand over the footage to police immediately — usually within a day or two.

Those favoring the bills say the stringent reporting requirements will bring a swifter halt to cruelty. They compare them to laws forcing doctors to report the first signs of child abuse.

"We would see the videotape, and the inevitable question is, 'Why didn't you go to the farm owner or the plant manager?'" asks Dale Moore, former chief of staff of the Department of Agriculture under President George W. Bush. "Typically they did, but only after they did their fundraising or sensationalizing."

Yet activists see such rhetoric as painfully disingenuous. If Big Ag truly wishes to fight abuse, they argue, it would expand penalties for animal mistreatment, not for those who uncover it.

"I think any rational person can see how absurd it is to criminalize people who expose illegal behavior," says Jane, a Mercy investigator who wishes to remain anonymous.

The not-so-hidden hand behind the new laws is the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC. It's a conservative, pro-business think tank backed by some of the country's largest corporations, including ExxonMobil, Pfizer, and Koch Industries.

ALEC was a catalyst behind the "Stand Your Ground" shooting laws and various voter-suppression methods used in the last election. Its specialty is the "model bill," essentially pre-written legislation that allows conservative officials around the country to copy and paste to their desire.

Want to sabotage some environmental laws? ALEC has a menu to choose from.

Want to stop neighbors from suing corporate farms over issues of odor and waste? ALEC can help you do it by this afternoon.

A decade ago, the group began peddling the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act, which contained rhetoric so overwrought that it bordered on parody. It sought to make filming a farm an act akin to bombing the Boston Marathon. The guilty would be placed on a "terrorist registry."

Recent rhetoric from ag-gag supporters has been equally over the top.

Take Tennessee state Representative Andy Holt, whose own farm produces pork, beef, and goat meat. Two years ago, the Humane Society caught Tennessee horse trainer Jackie McConnell slathering caustic chemicals on the ankles of his animals. The pain causes the horses to lift their legs higher during competitions. Footage also showed workers whipping and shocking horses and beating them on the head with sticks.

The Tennessee Legislature's response: Crack down on the people who would expose such a thing.

When the state's ag-gag bill passed last month, Holt wrote a letter to the Humane Society that was so blistering — and incoherent — that readers could practically see the spittle as he typed:

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

I too am at the point of either becoming vegetarian or at least limiting consumption to locally, humanely raised meat. These factory farms are an abomination. It is an excuse for extreme animal abuse. Producers that see their animals as 'products', instead of the living, thinking, feeling creatures that they are, are disgusting. These gruesome torture chambers must be held to the same standards as anyone else when it comes to animal abuse. Sickening.


The theory that "happy" farm animals would not produce eggs, meat or milk, is ludicrous! No animal can be happy in factory farm conditions, and they do not have a choice whether to lay eggs or give milk or gain weight. These are forced on them by biology, as well as the fact that factory farming uses specially bred strains for these purposes, and feeds them hormones and antibiotics. Some of the breeds, particularly among birds, grow so huge so fast that they can't walk and have other health problems. They are typically slaughtered while still pretty much babies but their bodies are huge with meat.  The caged hen lays because she's been bred to lay an egg a day no matter what. The cow standing in her own waste produces milk because she has been artificially inseminated and gave birth, which prompts milk production especially in dairy breeds.  The layer hen industry "disposes" of male chicks by killing them, often horrifically, right after hatching.  Animals gain weight and produce because of breeding and drugs, not "happiness."

When I was a kid I lived in a farming community and never saw the unsanitary and cruel confinement conditions that are now common, until the factory farming model came along. Factory farming IS what is making me work to become vegan.  It isn't that I think the human species is naturally vegan, or that it's any more morally wrong to eat meat than it is for a lion to eat meat. It's that I can't support an industry run by sociopaths.


Thanks to Phoenix New Times and Pete Kotz for this article. I am a board member/volunteer with the Animal Defense League of Arizona, which along with HSUS and Farm Sanctuary, sponsored the 2006 initiative that banned gestation and veal crates.  

There actually was a decade-long investigation into Arizona's livestock auctions, dairies, and slaughterhouses, although it was on a small scale. In the early 1990's I became concerned about the treatment of farm animals and food safety. I joined with two other nurses to document animal cruelty in Arizona livestock auctions, where cows and infant calves too sick to stand up were left to suffer and die, sometimes for days. Thanks to help from Dr. Temple Grandin, local media, and other animal protection groups, our long-term investigation led to some improvements and public awareness.  However, we were no match for the powerful industrial agriculture lobby.

Fortunately some things have changed over the years. As mentioned Arizona voters banned the cruel confinement of pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal in 2006. There has been increasing public awareness of animal cruelty in factory farms throughout the country, thanks largely to those undercover investigators who have videotaped extreme abuse. And thanks to social media, those images are disseminated widely. However, what has not changed is the fact that the agriculture industry refuses to accept responsibility for its cruel treatment of animals and will continue to use its power to punish those that expose it. 

Undercover videos by animal protection organizations have led to cruelty charges and increased public awareness regarding cruel treatment of animals in large scale agricultural facilities. Yet instead of addressing animal abuse, the factory farming industry ramped up its attack on those who expose cruelty with the help of shadowy corporate front group ALEC (as mentioned in the article). 

Arizona State Legislators introduced ag-gag bills in the 2004 and 2005 sessions, which provided that any individual who videotapes animals at a circus, rodeo, or greyhound race could be charged with a felony, labeled a terrorist, and possibly sued for triple damages for economic loss.  These measures were  vetoed twice by then-Governor Napolitano, who eventually signed a version that had been substantially watered down from its original wording. However, it set a precedent by adding “animal and ecological terrorism” to Arizona's RICO (racketeering) statutes.

The fact that the cruel treatment of farm animals we documented 20 years ago has not changed illustrates the importance of whistle-blowers. The other fact that has not changed is that the agriculture industry refuses to accept responsibility for its cruel treatment of animals and instead attempts to criminalize those who dare to expose the abuse behind the closed doors of factory farms and slaughterhouses.

Kim Spencer
Kim Spencer

Outright torture and sadistic behavior towards a domesticated animal doesn't suddenly become an "acceptable standard of humane treatment" simply because an animal is ultimately going to end up on someone's plate. From the article: "supervisor Phil Niles is heard recounting an abuser's greatest hits: how he beat cows with wrenches, smashed their heads with two-by-fours, kicked them when they were too feeble to rise". I am very glad to know that there are more and more people who are demanding a humane level of care for animals, and I am one of those people. Gandhi said it best: "the greatness of a nation and it's moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”. Great article, thanks for covering this issue, New Times :)

Kari Nienstedt
Kari Nienstedt

Thank you so much for covering this important issue!

Jennifer Salazar
Jennifer Salazar

Thanks for the article. These people are DISGUSTING. I don't know how you can call yourself a human being when you stab a cow in the face with a pitchfork and brag about how "big that fucker's face is" after you've beaten it with a crowbar. The worst kind of "human being" is the one who casually rips a pigs testicles out because they "can".

Mein Vater
Mein Vater

we deliver livestock & people YOU DON'T WANNA KNOW!! It's pretty disgusting!!!