Investigative Unit 2013: 'Ag Gag' Threatens Animal Abuse Reporting

PHOTO: Undercover video shot by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals and provided to ABC News appears to show unsanitary conditions and repeated acts of animal cruelty at a major American egg farm.
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[As 2013 comes to a close, the ABC News Brian Ross Investigative Unit looks back on its major projects over the last year.]

Some of the most dreadful videos of alleged animal abuse at American farms -- including some aired by ABC News -- only has been made possible because of activists willing to sneak undercover cameras into the facilities, but as an ABC News "Nightline" report in March showed, a growing number of states have pushed to outlaw what the activists call a crucial tactic.

As ABC News reported, animal rights activists, fearing arrest in response to the new laws, halted their hidden camera investigations in five farm states, including Iowa and Utah where the laws went into effect in 2012. In the case of Iowa's law, which makes it a crime for anyone to apply for a job at a farm while lying about being a member of an animal rights group, Governor Terry Branstad said, "If somebody comes on somebody else's property, through fraud or deception or lying, that is a serious violation of people's rights."

Farm groups said that while they are appalled by animal cruelty, the cutting exposes are not the way to solve the problem.

This year a series of bills were introduced in more states, including Nebraska, Indiana, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and California, that would ban or restrict undercover taping on the large-scale, so-called "factory farms."

"This flawed and misdirected legislation could set a dangerous precedent nationwide by throwing shut the doors to industrial factory farms and allowing animal abuse, environmental violations, and food contamination issues to flourish undetected, unchallenged, and unaddressed," Nathan Runkle, executive director for animal rights group Mercy for Animals, said in the March report.

It was Mercy for Animals that provided ABC News with hidden-camera video that aired in a November 2011 "20/20" investigation showing unsanitary conditions and repeated acts of cruelty on chickens at one of the nation's largest egg producers, Sparboe Farms, located in Iowa. Following the ABC News report, Sparboe President and owner Beth Sparboe Schnell created a "Sustainability Task Force" charged with "reviewing all current company practices in the areas of food safety, animal care and sustainability." She said she made the move "so that we can make our company better."

"I was deeply saddened to see the [animal cruelty video] story because this isn't who Sparboe Farms is," she said. "Acts depicted in the footage are totally unacceptable and completely at odd with our values as egg farmers."

Animal activist groups say the new "ag gag" laws interfere with freedom of speech and they intend to challenge the laws in court.

"Agribusiness interests, rather than trying to prevent cruelty to animals, are trying to prevent the public from seeing what's going on on factory farms in the United States," said Wayne Pacelle, CEO and President of the Humane Society of the United States. "You will never stop the abuse if you shut the cameras down."

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