In June 1642, in the Puritan town of Boston, a crowd gathers to witness the punishment of Hester Prynne, a young woman found guilty of adultery. She is required to wear a scarlet "A" ("A" standing for adulterer) on her dress to shame her. She must stand on the scaffold for three hours, to be exposed to public humiliation.

Maybe you read the book? Written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850, it is considered to be one of the great novels of American literature.  It was considered scandalous at the time it was published and I can imagine it was probably sold 'under the counter' in a plain brown wrapper to some of the more adventurous citizens.

There is a modern day version of the scarlet letter being tattooed on agriculture's forehead by those notorious 'ag-gag' laws. The sin to be hidden, of course, is the very rare occurrence of animal abuse usually caused by lax employee oversight, occasionally encouraged by a very few who refuse to understand the grievous error of their ways. Ugly undercover videos released by activists are the awkward manner of exposure that those laws are trying to prevent.

Video an agricultural operation from across the highway without the expressed permission of the owner?  Manage to get hired and captured abuse 'up close and personal' with a hidden camera?  It's a fine and possible jail time for you. The Idaho law called for up to a year in prison and financial restitution of twice the 'economic loss' suffered by the farm or ranch caused by the exposure of their animal handling practices.

And I do understand that sometimes those video segments are selectively edited or the abuse might happen with the encouragement of the videographer. Holding off on releasing the footage for weeks until the proper 'big reveal' in front of the largest possible audience also puts the organizations behind these exposés in the same criminal strait jacket as the farms and ranches that are being tarred and feathered.  Whatever their noble claims might be, delaying the reporting makes them absolutely complicit in the abuse.   

On Aug. 3, an Idaho judge killed that state's "ag-gag" law. As expected, he declared it unconstitutional, violating the First and Fourteenth amendments: "Although the State may not agree with the message certain groups seek to convey about Idaho's agricultural production facilities, such as releasing secretly recorded videos of animal abuse to the Internet and calling for boycotts, it cannot deny such groups equal protection of the laws in their exercise of their right to free speech."

As expected, activists were giddy with delight. It was a major victory handed to them by a few industry people who did not stop to fully understand the absolute error of their ways. Nathan Runkle, the top dog at  Mercy For Animals, one of the most active of the activists groups that use undercover video, immediately blogged that the ruling should serve as a "wake-up call to the meat industry that attempts to keep consumers in the dark about where their food comes from will not be tolerated."

The Idaho suit was filed by the oddballs at PETA and the even stranger folks at Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) in 2013. ALDF said they were taking Utah to court for "infringing on the free speech rights of activists, investigators, and journalists by criminalizing undercover investigations at factory farms."

Kay Johnson Smith, Animal Agriculture Alliance President got the industry view right when she responded, "No one in agriculture condones any sort of animal abuse."  What she got wrong was why ag gag laws are not the solution to the problem. "The undercover videos produced by animal rights groups, however, are not really about stopping animal abuse," she said." What they are about is the use of illicit, underhanded and manipulative tactics to produce videos to mislead the public into thinking their food is inhumanely produced."

Of course, some of them are underhanded and manipulative. There are some shady characters out there who know how to effectively use the sleaziest propaganda tools. Some of them are produced by well-meaning people who want to stop abuse.  They share the same basic sentiments as 99% of the people in animal agriculture. 

Violating the First and Fourteenth amendments in order to stop the video exposes is not going to happen.  Handing MFA, HSUS and the dozens of other groups an important PR win is foolish. "What are you trying so desperately to hide?," they'll ask and the answer will be agonizingly obvious to the public. Being aggressively active ourselves and very upfront and transparent when we find a problem is the only way to 'own' the issue.

Just in case you missed the latest transgression, Christensen Farms' CEO Glenn Stolt has just announced the suspension of seven employees following allegations by Last Chance for Animals (LCA) of severe animal welfare violations at one of their hog production facilities. In a practice not usually followed by animal welfare groups, LCA’s investigator, Adam Wilson, reported his concerns to Christensen Farms management before filing the complaint with the county Sheriff’s office and releasing the supporting hidden camera video to the press.

Food Safety News reported LCA "claims workers made sows with severe injuries walk, dragged sows by their ears and snouts, and slapped, kicked and stabbed downed sows. In addition, LCA charges that piglets were not properly euthanized and that management failed to euthanize pigs suffering from debilitating illnesses and injuries."

“We were disappointed to learn of alleged violations of our animal welfare policies at one of our facilities,” said Christensen. “We take the health and welfare of our animals very seriously. It is our responsibility and we owe it to our packer customers and consumers to provide uncompromising care to our animals. There is no place in this industry for individuals who mistreat animals.”

Got it?  If you are anywhere near animal agriculture, fear the worst. Someone in your organization might not know or care about the rules of animal engagement. Watch for any hint of abuse.  If you find it, act swiftly and publicly to end the practice.  Understand that there are groups out there that will find it, sooner or later, and make your business a public spectacle, forever to wear that big scarlet letter of shame; 'A' as in animal abuser, a much worse sin today than when the adulterer Hester Prynne wore it 165 years ago.