Don’t assume that headline is from to some “torch-the-industry” radical. It’s the message from one of the most prominent, most knowledgeable, most respected industry authorities around.
There has been lots of publicity and even more overreaction to the recent decision by a federal judge in Idaho to strike down so-called “ag-gag” laws that had been in effect in eight different states.
Many producer groups have publicly criticized the decision, and even though the ruling was based on support for constitutionally protected First Amendment rights, many more individual producers have expressed opposition to allowing the capture and subsequent dissemination of undercover videos — typically heavily edited — to expose alleged cases of animal abuse to the media.
While I can empathize with what seems like a violation of privacy and an infringement of one’s property rights, freedom of speech, especially speech with which people disagree, is fundamental to what makes us Americans.
Here’s another reason to grudgingly support the overturning of ag-gag laws, and this argument wasn’t crafted by a bunch of wild-eyed activists who, when they’re not sneaking into pens and packing plants with concealed videocams and are living on a pure vegan diet of soybeans and salad, but by one of the most respected voices in agriculture.
In a commentary titled, “Opening Barn Doors Best Approach to Building Trust,” Charlie Arnot made the case for supporting the demise of ag-gag laws.
In case you’re not familiar, Arnot is the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity and a prominent industry communicator, speaker, public relations expert and award-winning journalist who’s been in the farm and food business for many years, and formerly served as corporate officer and spokesman at Premium Standard Farms.
He knows animal agriculture, and he understands the frustrations of producers and packers when some animal rights group releases a video that paints a company — and thus the entire industry — in a horrific light. Typically these scenes of animal mishandling get replayed on mainstream media without any sort of filter or disclaimer, considering the resource is an operative of a group dedicated to swearing animal agriculture out of existence.
But Arnot also makes the salient point in all such discussions of freedom of speech versus private property rights: “Ag-gag laws do not promote the transparency that consumers want, expect and deserve when it comes to food production.”
He’s 100 percent right on.
Opening operation doors
Honestly, there are few people on this planet who have dealt with more passion, politicking and pushback on the issue of industrial farming than Charlie Arnot, and it would be understandable if he stood firm in opposition to groups and individuals whose only agenda is sabotaging the hard work and products of everyone involved in livestock production and meat processing.
But the extensive research that the Center for Food Integrity has conducted over the years clearly points to a key concept which, like it or not, producers and packers must accept: Transparency.
“Rather than promoting transparency, the message consumers might be getting from agriculture's support of [ag-gag] laws is, ‘We have nothing to hide but this is none of your business,’” Arnot wrote in a blog post on the Center’s website (www.foodintegrity.org/blog/post/ag-gag-open-doors).
“This reality poses a challenge when it comes to assuring consumers that production practices on today’s farms are humane and the people responsible for animal care are ethically committed to doing the right thing.”
It’s fine to state such niceties, but people want more than soothing language about how growers truly care for their animals.
Although 99.99% absolutely do.
Arnot made the point that anyone who witnesses animal abuse should take action to stop it, not just record it. We would expect nothing less if such abuse were directed at children or at anyone who might be vulnerable. Indeed, both the pork and dairy industries have signed onto the “See It? Stop It!” initiative, which requires that anyone working on a farm has an obligation to report signs of animal abuse, neglect, or mishandling.
But as he wrote, “Using state laws to barricade the barn door doesn’t build public trust.” And without a deep sense of trust, too many consumers assume the worst, and then even doctored videos succeed in poisoning the discussion about certain veterinary practices and about overall standards of farm animal care.
Some farms have already made their operations more transparent, either with farm tours or live video feeds, and despite the need to tightly control visitations — and webcam imagery —transparency about what happens on pork and dairy farms is critical if animal agriculture is ever going to convince the public that producers are good stewards who care for their livestock.
Allow me to quote Arnot’s conclusion at some length, because it’s razor-sharp and on point:
“Video investigations remind us that the gap between agriculture and consumers continues to widen. Agriculture can do a better job of bridging the gap and assuring consumers that the commitment to responsible food production remains strong. Working toward increasing the transparency of today’s farms will build trust between farmers and consumers and encourage a more informed conversation about food.”
I don’t know how “informed” the conversations between consumers and farmers will ever become, but I do know this: Without a sense of trust on the part of the public, the toughest ag-gag law ever conceived will only do more harm than good.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.