Ross unit producer Cindy Galli accepted a Genesis Award Saturday night for an undercover expose of alleged animal abuse at the egg farms that once supplied half the nation's McDonald's restaurants -- an investigation that might now be impossible to replicate because of a batch of new state laws that "gag" undercover reporters.
"We can give these stories an audience on ABC News," said Galli, accepting the award from the Humane Society of the United States for a "20/20" report on Iowa-based Sparboe Farms. "That's easy compared to what groups like the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals do. They do the tough work of exposing inhumane treatment of animals every day."
The "20/20" report used hidden-camera footage gathered by a Mercy for Animals activist working undercover at Sparboe Farms facilities in several states, including Iowa. The footage, shot during the summer of 2011, appears to show unsanitary conditions and repeated acts of animal cruelty. After being shown the video, as well as learning of an FDA warning letter sent to Sparboe regarding unsanitary conditions, McDonald's and Target ended their relationship with Sparboe. Sparboe had supplied eggs to all McDonald's restaurants west of the Mississippi River.
Legislators in a number of agricultural states, however, have responded to animal abuse exposes by proposing new laws that would make it difficult for an undercover reporter to get a job at a farm. The bills do not ban hidden camera footage, but they do make it a crime for a job applicant to lie on an employment application when asked if he or she is a member of a specific group. The governor of Iowa -- where much of the Sparboe footage was shot -- signed the country's first so-called "ag gag" bill into law earlier this month. On Friday Utah became the second state to adopt an ag gag law. Indiana, Missouri, New York, Nebraska, Illinois and Tennessee are also considering legislation.
"If Mercy for Animals had tried to go undercover today," said Galli after the Genesis ceremony, "they most likely would not have been successful. We would not have been given the video, and McDonald's would not have been made aware and pulled their contract."
Mercy for Animals, which has shot undercover footage at chicken, turkey, pig and dairy farms around the country, has joined with 26 other groups, including the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the U.S., to oppose the ag gag laws. A statement from the coalition called the bills "a wholesale assault on many fundamental values" and a threat to health, safety and freedom of the press.
"This flawed and misdirected legislation," said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, "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."