Earlier this month, an Idaho federal district judge struck down legislation that would make it a federal crime to secretly photograph or film at industrial feedlots and slaughterhouses in the state. Opponents call such legislation ag-gag (a term attributed to Mark Bittman in a 2011 column for the New York Times). When organizations like Mercy For Animals orchestrate such undercover filming they are motivated to expose horrific farm animal abuse and share it with the public. The agricultural lobby champions such legislation in order to prevent this. Currently, ag-gag laws are on the books in a handful of states.
Some farm animals are protected under the Humane Slaughter Act. First enacted in 1958, and designed to minimize the pain and suffering animals face in the process of slaughter, it has gone through fits and starts of evolution ever since. It is important to point out that chickens, turkeys, and other birds comprise the vast majority of the more than nine billion land animals slaughtered for food each year in the U.S. and are not protected under the Humane Slaughter Act. And, according to animal welfare advocacy groups like Farm Sanctuary and the Humane Society of the United States, the cows, pigs, horses, goats, sheep and other animals specifically mentioned in the Act are regularly subject to gross violations.
Of the Idaho case, what most captured this Examiner’s attention was the judge’s argument. Federal District Judge B. Lynn Winmill declared that the Idaho law was in violation of the First Amendment. As The New York Times reports, it was “the first time a court has ruled on such a statute.” Of his decision, the judge stated:
“The effect of the statute will be to suppress speech by undercover investigators and whistleblowers concerning topics of great public importance: the safety of the public food supply, the safety of agricultural workers, the treatment and health of farm animals, and the impact of business activities on the environment.” In his written remarks, he added: “Food production is not a private matter.”
What comes next for Idaho remains to be seen. But a court’s conclusion that food production belongs in the public realm is groundbreaking for a country that industrialized and monopolized its food industry to unprecedented degrees. If Judge Winmill’s position gains traction, as it likely will given current trends and dynamics around food-system transparency, this could be a game changer for how America eats.