On February 8, a 25-year-old animal rescue worker named Amy Meyer and a colleague pulled into a parking lot across the street from the Dale T. Smith and Sons Meat Packing Company in Draper, Utah, a suburb south of Salt Lake City. They crossed the street and stepped onto a strip of public land on the roadside, stopping short of a barbed wire fence that demarcated the boundary of the property of the slaughterhouse.
Across a small field, the building housing the killing floor stood in plain sight. Through two large open doors facing the road they stood on, they could see cows being led onto the plant’s disassembly line. Outside the building, a forklift was pushing a live cow—possibly a sick, “downer” cow, which are illegal to slaughter. Despite the fact that she stood firmly on public property and was not an employee of the slaughterhouse, when Meyer took out her camera and began to film, she set herself up to become the agricultural industry’s first-ever “Ag Gag” criminal.
“Ag Gag” laws are a species of state-level legislation that has been vigorously pushed by lobbyists over the last several years to criminalize and suppress the exposure of inhumane practices in animal agricultural operations. In essence, the laws protect the industry by making whistleblowers into outlaws.
Ag Gag laws take aim at camera-wielding undercover whistleblowers, whose videos have provided some of the few unvarnished glimpses the public has seen of where their food comes from—and it’s not a pretty sight. Over the last half century, intensive, mechanized, indoor factory-style animal feeding operations have almost entirely supplanted the grazing pastures of traditional livestock farms. In processing plants, ever-increasing disassembly line speeds have increased the risks of injury to knife-wielding slaughterhouse workers, who tend to be poor, often undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America, while compounding the risk of some animals being skinned and dismembered while still alive.
Undercover videos have exposed the ugly realities concealed behind the walls and locked gates of animal agriculture facilities and put them on the evening news. The footage is graphic; the impressions they leave are haunting and indelible. Images from past undercover investigations include unwanted male chicks on an egg farm being casually tossed into a grinder alive, workers swinging sick or runty piglets by their legs and smashing their heads on concrete, and cows and calves being beaten in the head with crowbars (the first two abuses are standard industry practice). “Once you see them, you can’t unsee them,” says Matt Rice, Director of Investigations for Mercy For Animals, who traces his own conversion to animal advocacy to undercover videos he watched over a decade ago.
Their impact on a political level can be just as powerful as on a personal one: in the last decade, videos shot by undercover investigators and broadcast on national TV news stations have contributed to the phasing-out of the use of immobilizing “gestation crates” for pregnant sows in the supply chains of several major restaurants and retailers and their outright ban in nine states; the passage of a ballot initiative outlawing the use of highly constrictive battery cages for egg-laying hens in California; the passage of a separate California law banning the force-feeding of ducks to produce foie gras; a ban on veal crates in Arizona and moves toward their elimination in Ohio; and the exposure of the routine slaughter and processing of sick cows for beef, which led to the largest meat recall in US history.