(March 23 -- By the Editorial Board)
In early 2008, the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. in Chino issued a recall for more than 143 million pounds of raw and frozen beef products, following the release of video footage showing that plant workers were abusing "downed" cows, including using forklifts to prod the animals to their feet.
Many in the California cattle industry were outraged by the footage, obtained through an investigation conducted by the Humane Society of the United States. The California Cattlemen's Association condemned the practices at Hallmark/Westland and supported legislation to outlaw the slaughter and transportation of non-ambulatory cattle.
Four years later, however, the California Cattlemen's Association is pushing legislation that could well have the effect of intimidating whistle-blowers and preventing journalists from investigating claims of animal abuse. The CCA is sponsoring Assembly Bill 343, which would require anyone who has videotaped or photographed farm animal cruelty to report it to law enforcement authorities within 48 hours, or else face fines of up to $500.
The CCA insists the intent of the bill is pure - to ensure that any abuse that is occurring be stopped as quickly as possible. The trade association notes the Hallmark/ Westland video was taken in late 2007 and not released until Jan. 30, 2008. "Evidence clearly depicting animal abuse should be used to fix any problems immediately!" says the CCA in a flier supporting AB 343, which is authored by Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Republican from Fresno.
We are not mind readers, so we will take the CCA at its word the bill is not intended to harass the media and whistle-blowers. But if that's the case, it appears the CCA has little appreciation of the job of journalists and workers courageous enough to leak information about workplace conditions.
Say you are a worker in a meatpacking plant - not an animal rights activist who has surreptitiously found employment there. And say you witness and video a case of animal abuse.
Under AB 343, that worker would have to turn over the video to authorities in 48 hours, with no guarantee that his or her identity would be protected, or that authorities would act on the information. Such a worker would rightly fear retaliation from an employer, and most likely would keep the video secret.
If that worker shared the video with a journalist, the journalist would need time to verify its authenticity and do further reporting. That would take longer than 48 hours, or even 72 hours - a duration the CCA says it would accept in an amendment. If the journalist ultimately used the video, he or she would be exposing the source to possible fines and retaliation from an employer.
There's no getting around it: This is a bad bill. It's a version of so-called "ag-gag bills" that a corporate-backed group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, has been shopping around to other states. It should be buried by the Assembly Agriculture Committee, where the bill is scheduled to be heard on April 17.
If cases of animal abuse are as rare as the Cattlemen's Association claims, then there should be few or no cases of people sitting on video or photographic evidence. The best way for the CCA to rebuild confidence in animal operations is to police its own industry, instead of seeking fines on photographers and videographers.