Big Mama Pig: Oinking Back at Ag Gag Rules

Free the pigsThis enormous sow just had 17 piglets. We met her on a visit to a real farm, where animals like pigs breathe outdoor air.

But I really think the picture says it all. She was quite the pig.

Across the U.S. the past legislative session, states debated whether to pass “ag gag” laws that make it a crime to take a picture or video of a farming operation or slaughterhouse. Thankfully, all 11 of the proposed bills failed — some, like in California, after a major public fight. The purpose of these laws is to shield industrial agriculture from public scrutiny and to keep industry whistle-blowers from documenting how poorly animals are treated. I can’t think of anything less democratic, transparent, or cruel when it comes to our food supply. What we need is more sunlight on farms, not less.

Here’s a description of the laws from Food Safety News:

  • In North Dakota, it is a class B misdemeanor to enter an animal facility and use or attempt to use a camera, video recorder, or any other video or audio recording device. It is defined as “unlawful interference with animal facilities” and as “prohibited activity.”  Violators face jail terms of 30 days.

  • Kansas’s law makes it a class A, nonperson misdemeanor to enter an animal facility that is not open to the public and take pictures or video. The law is part of the state’s “Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act.”

  • Montana’s measure makes it unlawful to enter an animal facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with intent to commit criminal defamation, and to enter an animal facility if the person knows entry is forbidden.

All three of these laws were passed in 1990 and 1991. Now, after a 20-year lull,  there’s been a surge in the introduction of ag-gag bills and Iowa and Utah enacted new laws, meaning five states have imposed these restrictions.

What are they trying to hide? Well, in the past few years alone, whistle-blowers have been essential in uncovering abuses. Here’s one story from an undercover reporter:

Millions of haggard, featherless hens languished in crowded, microwave-sized wire cages. Unable to even spread their wings, many were forced to pile atop their dead and rotting cage mates as they laid their eggs.

And another, related to a videotape made in 2007, drawing an upsetting connection to the poor monitoring of beef given to kids in school:

The answer begins at the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, California. In 2007, a Humane Society investigator went undercover there and filmed “downers,” cows too sick or injured to walk, dragged by chains and pushed by forklifts to the kill floor. (The Obama administration has since banned the slaughter of downer cows, which pose a higher risk of having mad cow disease.)

The footage aired on network news and spurred the U.S. Department of Agriculture to announce what was at the time the largest meat recall in U.S. history. But by then it was too late – most of the meat had already been consumed, much of it through the National School Lunch Program.

This has to do, obviously, with the safety of our food supply. But understanding more fully what goes on at industrial farms would also lead to far greater public demand for a return to a more sustainable and humane form of agriculture, which is just what the industrial food giants fear most. As Marc Bittman put it:

The biggest problem of all is that we’ve created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane, and the kinds of abuses documented [by whistleblowers] are really just reminders of that.

Until this situation changes, we will continue at my house to source our meats from animal-friendly, sustainable local and organic farms, farms where, as Michael Pollan recently said on his book tour, the animals had “one bad day.”

We’re fortunate where we live to have these sources. We get our pork from Babes in the Woods, a family farm where the rare Tamworth pigs forage outdoors for acorns all year round, or Polyface Farms, the gold standard in sustainable, bio-dynamic farming. To check if farmers like these are in your area, you can always look on EatWild, a terrific resource.

More reading:

pigletsOink, oink.

Talk with the Animals

Since I’ve been dishing out the advice to get out to farms and see how things stack up, I thought we’d spend the weekend actually walking the walk, squawking the squawk, and talking the… well, you get it.

So on Saturday, we went to a cool place called, literally, “Old Maryland Farm,” which is part of Watkins Regional Park, to celebrate the illustrious “Wool & Fiber Day.” This entailed watching a bleating sheep get shorn, peacocks, and a hayride. Maya was very impressed with the chickens — notice how well she obeys the sign!

For those in the DC-Maryland metro area, this is a worthy destination for families. Once the summer starts, there’s a carousel and mini-golf, as well as animals to see and a nice play area, all in the great outdoors. Campsites are also available.

But this location is more petting zoo than working farm, of course. So on Sunday, we traveled to outside of Frederick, Maryland, to a “Farm Day” for a dairy farm that does local CSA deliveries and produces mouth-watering ice cream, South Mountain Creamery.

It was a fun day, though the crowds were intense. A bluegrass band kept things lively, and there was the option to shake your way to a small, fresh amount of butter in a vial. The baby animals in the calves’ barn were the highlights for Maya.

In visiting the farm, I was struck by how natural it was to see cows on grass, of course, but I also noticed my total lack of competence to judge farm conditions in any detail. It looked like a humane and sensible operation, but in terms of whether such a visit would allow me to “vouch” for a farm’s food or products, I simply don’t know enough to judge such things. So much for my sage advice.

Still, it was lovely to see the enthusiasm for the celebration among loyal CSA customers and neighbors alike, and the condition of the animals was, by any measure, a far cry from the industrial farming systems that have garnered so many awful headlines of late. And of course, nothing beats real baby animals for a toddler (or a mom!).

What do you notice when you visit a farm? Are there indicators that would help a casual visitor to distinguish better and best operations?