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California Cattlemen's Introduction of "Ag-Gag" Bill May be Legislative and PR Blunder of the Year

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's California News page and our Factory Farming and Food Safety page.

You would think that the beef industry would have its hands full dealing with news reports about the infusion of a distant relative of Mr. Ed in IKEA meatballs and in other "beef" products.

But no.

Here in California, the California Cattlemen's Association has embarked on what is likely to go down as the biggest PR blunder of the 2013 legislative session. It is sponsoring a bill that would essentially stop individuals from exposing unsafe food practices and animal cruelty with films and photographs.

Known as an "ag gag" bill, the proposal is patterned after similar legislation that has surfaced in state capitals across the nation. Those bills are based on a template marketed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group dominated by conservative special interests, to stop whistleblowers exposing animal cruelty and food safety issues. Even in states dominated by agriculture, the bills have had trouble; even conservatives are wary of the threat to free speech the legislation presents.

Faced with a Democratic supermajority, the crafters of the California version of the legislation tried to disguise their version. Draft language we've seen says that anyone photographing animal cruelty "shall submit all original photographs, recordings or video to local law enforcement and the owner of the animal(s) or a representative of the owner within forty eight hours of taking such photographs, recordings or video."

If you read that, you'd think that the Cattlemen would be on side of those fighting animal cruelty as well as law enforcement. But animal protection advocates, like the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA, aren't being fooled. Nor are union leaders like the UFCW and the Teamsters. Nor is the ACLU, the Public Justice Center, the Whistleblower Support Fund or the Organic Consumers Association. They know the Cattlemen are just protecting their (cow) hides.

Of course, the only reason the agribusiness groups want this law is to force any potential whistleblower to immediately blow their cover just a day or so into any investigation. Imagine telling law enforcement that they only had 48 hours to investigate potential misdeeds and then had to go public with their incipient findings.

Their bill is being carried by Assemblyman Patterson, who apparently was suckered into carrying the bill after wiser legislators turned down the Cattlemen Association's lobbyist. Paterson's district includes the Harris Ranch, well-respected for its quality beef.

Have the California Cattlemen set up Patterson for a boatload of bad press and a backlash at home? It sure looks that way.

Here's why. The Humane Society of the United States has been wildly successful in ginning up media coverage of legislation in which it has an interest. Its successful effort two years ago to ban the shark fin trade received international coverage. Most of the TV coverage showed the brutal side of shark finning and led to strong public reaction to ban the practice. The bill passed and was signed into law by Governor Brown. They followed that up with last year's much publicized - and successful - effort to stop bear hunters from sending their dogs out into the woods unsupervised to harass wildlife. 
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