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Bills seek control of farm scrutiny

Animal welfare limits planned

SACRAMENTO — An undercover video that showed California cows struggling to stand as they were prodded to slaughter by forklifts led to the largest meat recall in US history. In Vermont, a video of veal calves skinned alive and tossed like sacks of potatoes ended with the plant’s closure and criminal convictions.

Now in a pushback led by the meat and poultry industries, state legislators across the country are introducing laws making it harder for animal welfare advocates to investigate cruelty and food safety cases.

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Some bills 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.

Bills pending in California, Nebraska, and Tennessee require that anyone collecting evidence of abuse turn it over to law enforcement within 24 to 48 hours — which advocates say does not allow enough time to document illegal activity under federal humane handling and food safety laws.

‘‘We believe that folks in the agriculture community and folks from some of the humane organizations share the same concerns about animal cruelty,’’ said Mike Zimmerman, chief of staff for Assembly Member Jim Patterson, Republican of Fresno, the chief sponsor of the bill. ‘‘If there’s abuse taking place, there is no sense in letting it continue so you can make a video.’’

Patterson’s bill, sponsored by the California Cattlemen’s Association, would make failing to turn over video of abuse to law enforcement within 48 hours an infraction punishable by a fine.

Critics say the bills are an effort to deny consumers the ability to know how their food is produced.

‘‘The meat industry’s mantra is always that these are isolated cases, but the purpose of these bills is to prevent any pattern of abuse from being documented,’’ said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, which conducted the California and Vermont investigations.

In Indiana, Arkansas, and Pennsylvania it would be a crime to make videos at agricultural operations.

The goal of the proposed California law, industry representatives say, is to halt any abuses quickly and get video evidence to government regulators within two days, not to impede undercover investigations by animal welfare groups.

‘‘The people doing this aren’t cops so I wouldn’t think it’s their job to build a case. The goal for all of us is to reduce instances of animal abuse,’’ said David Daley, a Cattlemen vice president and professor of agricultural science at California State University-Chico.

Formal opposition to the California bill comes from the ASPCA, the Teamsters, the humane society, and dozens of others. They say these attempts by the agriculture industry to stop investigations are a part of a nationwide agenda set by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank backed by business interests.

The council has labeled those who interfere with animal operations ‘‘terrorists,’’ though a spokesman said he wishes now that the organization had called its legislation the ‘‘Freedom to Farm Act’’ rather than the ‘‘Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act.’’

‘‘At the end of the day it’s about personal property rights or the individual right to privacy,’’ said spokesman Bill Meierling. ‘‘You wouldn’t want me coming into your home with a hidden camera.’’

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