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Friday, July 5, 2013

Ag-gag bill meets opposition at hearing

Posted by on Fri, Jul 5, 2013 at 2:54 PM

Millions of animals in factory farms live in horrific conditions, and a bill in the N.C. Legislature would make it harder to uncover abuse.

The NC Commerce Protection Act of 2013, among else, would create penalties for employment fraud. However, section one of the Senate Bill 648 is better known under some of its other names: an ag-gag bill and a whistleblower suppression bill. The measure targets people who go undercover to expose animal cruelty or food safety issues on farms across the state.

The bill comes after a 2012 undercover investigation by Mercy for Animals at a Butterball turkey farm in North Carolina that revealed workers beating birds with metal rods, stomping, kicking them and violently throwing them into cages. Widespread media reports show that many animals on industrialized farms —chickens, cows, pigs—spend their whole lives, prior to being slaughtered, confined in crowded cages or barns—far from the “cows grazing on fields of green grass” image that big businesses present.

After several committee hearings and changes, SB 648 still would outlaw making false statements on a job application in order to conduct undercover investigations. It would be a criminal offense, punishable by a minimum fine of $10,000 for a first conviction. All recorded material should be handed to law enforcement and not be distributed anywhere else. Instead of having the initial 24 hours to turn over evidence, the bill was tweaked to extend that time to 48 hours, which still raises constitutional issues. If you surrender the evidence, you may incriminate yourself, a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties, is a farmer and agribusinessman—the very industry under fire by these investigations. He explained that the new changes assure news media would not be prosecuted if they were to air footage obtained by an undercover investigator.

At the latest committee hearing on Tuesday, Matthew Dominguez, public policy manager of the Humane Society of the United States, warned that “if this bill is to pass in North Carolina, you are making a safe haven for unethical and illegal activity, you are going to see unscrupulous business practice happen and the reason it's going to happen is because there will be no way to blow the whistle on it. And that's exactly what the N.C. Chamber of Commerce and the poultry industry want.”

Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, Iredell and Rowan counties, used the 1992 Food Lion case as an example of why the bill is needed. Two reporters gone undercover as store employees documented workers repackaging spoiled meat—some of it chewed on by rats—for public consumption. Food Lion sued for fraud and trespass, and won, claiming the two reporters had submitted false information on their job applications.

A few other senators did question parts of Section 1, including Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake. “To limit what somebody could do with a videotape, not having anything to do with a trade secret, sounds unconstitutional. But you all haven't had a problem with passing unconstitutional bills in the past,” he said.

The bill still must pass the House and Senate before it can go to Gov. Pat McCrory for ratification.

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