SACRAMENTO — After weeks of opposition from animal welfare advocates, labor groups and First Amendment experts, a California assembly member withdrew a bill that would limit undercover abuse investigations before it could advance past its first step.
California now joins Arkansas and Wyoming in declining in recent weeks to advance bills that seek to punish the documenter of farm animal abuse rather than the abuse itself.
In Tennessee, however, lawmakers on Wednesday were close to approving a bill similar to the one in California.
The California bill introduced by Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, originally would have required anyone collecting evidence of abuse to turn it over to law enforcement within 48 hours or be guilty of an infraction, which advocates say does not allow enough time to show a pattern of illegal activity under federal humane handling and food safety laws. In an effort to ease criticism, he amended the bill last week to increase reporting time to 120-hours.
It was supposed to have been voted on Wednesday by the California State Assembly Committee on Agriculture. Patterson killed his bill less than three hours before hearings were scheduled to begin as it became clear he would not have the votes to get it out of the committee.
“Sanity prevailed in Sacramento today,” said Jennifer Fearing, state director of the Humane Society of the United States, which had organized more than 50 groups in opposition of the bill.
Patterson, a freshman Assembly member, said he had hoped his bill would prevent animal abuse by requiring witnesses to promptly report it to authorities. He sponsored it for the California Cattlemen’s Association.
“My intention with this bill was and remains the prevention of animal cruelty,” Patterson said.
The bill cannot be brought back this year, though Patterson and the cattlemen want to hold a hearing later in the session to allow for more discussion.
“Animal welfare has always been and remains a top priority for beef cattle producers across the state of California,” CCA President Tim Koopmann said. “We appreciate Assemblymember Patterson’s willingness to push this bill forward despite opposition.”
In addition to Tennessee, other bills are gaining support in North Carolina and Indiana.
“California lawmakers rightfully saw through this attempt to suppress whistleblowers, but it’s troubling that Tennessee lawmakers were fooled by the same effort,” said Paul Shapiro, senior vice president at HSUS. “These bills are not an attempt to prevent animal cruelty, but to prevent Americans simply from finding out about cruelty in the first place.”
The California bill was one of a handful across the nation that are a pushback by the meat and poultry industries that have suffered financial losses in recent years after undercover videos revealed horrific abuse in egg plants and slaughterhouses.
A 2008 HSUS undercover video in California cows struggling to stand as they were prodded to slaughter by forklifts and led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history. In Vermont, an HSUS video of veal calves skinned alive and tossed like sacks of potatoes ended with the plant’s closure and criminal convictions.
Some bills being considered make it illegal to take photographs at a farming operation. Others make it a crime for someone such as an animal welfare advocate to lie on an application to get a job at a plant.
As in California, a bill still pending in Nebraska would require that anyone collecting evidence of abuse turn it over to law enforcement within 24 to 48 hours.
A bill pending in Pennsylvania would make it a crime to film videos at agricultural operations.
Last year Iowa, a major egg-producing state, passed a bill making it illegal to deny being a member of an animal welfare organization on a farm job application. Utah passed one that outlaws photography.
Critics say the bills are an effort to deny consumers the ability to know how their food is produced.
“If agribusiness ran their operations lawfully there’d be no need for anyone to document evidence of cruelty,” Fearing said.
The California bill also was opposed by the California Newspaper Publishers Association as an “unlawful taking of intellectual property” that would apply to journalists as well as undercover operatives and even employees of farms and slaughterhouses, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the organization.
Labor groups argued that requiring individuals to turn over to law enforcement videotapes of suspected abuse compels them to become agents of the government.
Many of the bills being introduced in statehouses across the U.S. have their origins in the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, which has called those who interfere with animal operations “terrorists” and offered up sample legislation on this and other issues.
Animal welfare advocates say law enforcement agencies do not have the time or inclination to work complex animal abuse and food safety cases, and that federal inspectors in slaughter plants have turned a blind eye to abuse.
Most of the sensational videos of abuse in recent years are shot by undercover operatives who surreptitiously apply and are hired by the meat processors for jobs within the facilities.