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Wednesday, Mar 13 2013 11:00 PM

Cattle industry must rethink 'ag-gag' bill

By The Bakersfield Californian

A bill introduced by California's cattle industry that purports to indicate a willingness to bring to public light instances of animal cruelty and unsafe food practices is in fact a deceptive piece of legislation that does just the opposite. It essentially would end protected whistle-blower activity by stopping the use of videos and photos to expose inhumane and unsafe practices.

The pending California proposal, part of a trend of so called "ag-gag bills" being introduced by state legislatures throughout the country, would require any person photographing purported animal cruelty to "submit all original photographs, recordings or video to local law enforcement and the owner of the animal(s) or a representative of the owner within forty eight hours of taking such photographs, recordings or video," according to draft language reported by the California Majority Report.

In other words, the bill requires whistle-blowers to immediately identify themselves while giving "offending" ranchers an unambiguous heads-up to possible law enforcement action.

The proposed bill seems to be part of a concerted effort by big agriculture to stem whistle-blower activity by turning to state legislatures throughout the U.S. to enact laws in its interests. It tends to follow an American Legislative Exchange Council marketing formula, which provides legislation "models" for lawmakers to enact. So far this year, nine states have current or pending anti-whistle-blower bills before their legislatures.

While we like to think this bill has no chance of passing in California, which again has a Democratic supermajority in both houses of the state Legislature, we are amazed by the audacity of the cattle industry in thinking that it could pull this one over on a public that is clearly more informed and intelligent than it seems to think. Fresno Assemblyman Jim Patterson, whose district includes Harris Ranch, a major supplier of beef in Kern County and throughout California, is carrying the bill.

Similar bills in other states, including those dominated by agriculture, have run into criticism over the chilling effect this sort of legislation will have on free speech. Among those who oppose these bills are the Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, whistle-blower support organizations and First Amendment groups. But restaurant, grocery and consumer groups should oppose it, too, because it takes away a vital weapon against potentially tainted products: sunlight.

We question the wisdom of the California cattle industry, and Patterson, in placing this bill before lawmakers. The debate it is certain to generate will bring substantial media attention -- and more of that unsavory downed-cow footage that has been haunting the industry, including the now infamous Westland/Hallmark case and Hanford's Central Valley Meat Co.

The industry's narrow, self-serving goals won't be able to counter the public backlash those images will produce. Such incidents may be few, but they reflect on an entire industry. What, we must ask, are the industry's public relations representatives thinking?

The cattle industry ought to drop this and similar bills, redouble its efforts to provide beef to consumers in a humane and safe manner, and then hire a good marketing firm to focus on those high standards.

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