The use of undercover video investigations has been an effective strategy used by animal welfare groups to bring more public attention to their cause and influence food company policies as they relate to housing systems for pigs, chickens and cows. Eight states responded by adopting so-called "ag-gag" laws that prohibit such investigations. Now, a federal judge in one of those states, Idaho, has stricken down such a law on grounds of constitutional free speech, which could put the other laws in jeopardy.
That may cause angst for some in the agriculture community.
It is understandably frustrating for livestock producers when undercover video investigations portray animal abuse as common practice on America's farms. It's not. And some of what is shown in these video investigations demonize practices that veterinary experts agree provide proper care. But ag-gag laws do not promote the transparency that research from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI) clearly shows consumers want, expect - and deserve - when it comes to food production.
Rather than promoting transparency, the message consumers might be getting from agriculture's support of such laws is, "We have nothing to hide but this is none of your business." 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.
Those who commit animal abuse on farms should be held accountable. And, those who witness animal abuse and continue to record it instead of stopping it should, too. The public would be outraged if someone recorded willful elder or child abuse and chose not to stop it. We should expect the same when it comes to abuse of animals.
But using state laws to barricade the barn door doesn't build public trust. Some farms are making their operations more transparent by opening up their barns, either with farm tours or live video feeds. CFI and the U.S. pork and dairy industries launched an initiative called "See It? Stop It!" The program demands that if signs of animal abuse, neglect, mishandling or harm are witnessed, anyone working on a farm has an obligation to report it immediately.
Empowering animal caretakers and giving them responsibility to report animal abuse immediately will help assure the best care for animals. Being more open and transparent about today's production methods helps show that farmers are good stewards of the land and are producing safe, nutritious and affordable food, while providing animals with great care.
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 even though farming systems have changed, 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.