May I take my hidden camera into your factory?

Remember a few years ago when the dreaded Humane Society of the United States used a hidden camera to show the public images of cattle that could not walk being slaughtered in the state of California? The furor that caused led to the biggest beef recall in American history.

The Missouri House of Representatives has sent the state senate a proposed law that would make anybody who records such things a criminal if they do it without the cattle processor knowing they’re doing it, and getting permission to record those images.

The HSUS seems to be The Great Satan as far as Missouri agriculture is concerned. And Representative Casey Guernsey doesn’t want it showing any similar images of Missouri processing plants — if there are any to be shown. He says the public doesn’t understand agriculture practices. So his bill would charge a person with a new kind of fraud if they go to work for a processor and then shoot video of what is going on inside the building and then lets people see what he saw.

Do it more than once, and the undercover camera person could be a prison inmate. Furthermore, that person would be liable for restitution for any damages caused  resulting from what now would become a crime.

We checked with an expert at the other end of the room about this sort of thing because as a reporter we innately dislike any legislation that impedes public knowledge about something as important as the food we eat. Cyndi Young is the director of the Brownfield Network, the nation’s largest radio farm network. She and her husband also raise cattle. She told me that “down” cattle — the kind that were shown in the California videos being dragged to their slaughter or taken by forklift to their slaughter — can be unable to walk to their doom for several reasons. Perhaps they’re dehydrated. Perhaps they broke a leg while being hauled in one of those big trailers to the slaughterhouse.

She also told me that federally-inspected plants (the only ones she and her husband send their cattle to) have federal inspectors who check the animals for diseases and who check the meat that comes from them.

The slaughter of the animals that become our food is not something most of us would like to see week after week on a TV (un)reality show. So images that might be secretly made inside a slaughter house are likely to be pretty revolting to folks who think their hamburger and their chicken breasts arrive in their supermarket cooler though some non-violent and mysterious way. Missouri’s defenders of agriculture are critical of the HSUS for seeking that public reaction. The animal agriculture industry has often voiced the opinion at the capitol that HSUS wants to eliminate animal agriculture and using hidden-camera images to turn the public’s stomachs and to turn public opinion is a way to do that.

HSUS denies those assertions.

Animal agriculture apparently through HB1860 seems to think that the only way to counter the perceived information abuse by HSUS is to make criminals of anyone who gains access to a production facility under false pretenses and then circulates recordings of what they see.

No industry likes to be cast in an unfavorable light. But the reporter who sees such a bill  might be excused for being uncomfortable about an industry as important at the one that processes our food that wants to make it a crime for someone to show the public something other than the company line.

There aren’t many journalists in the Missouri House, where 108 of the 163 members voted last week to send the bill to the Senate.

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