While Sen. Jim Norman‘s controversial farm-photo bill may have died in the Florida Legislature, animal rights advocates are cautiously acknowledging the victory is a temporary one whose significance may ultimately be thwarted by laws currently pending in Iowa and Minnesota.

The bill, which would have created penalties for taking pictures on farms, drew a firestorm of opposition from animal rights groups who felt it would hamper whistleblowers’ efforts to expose inhumane farming conditions.

“Certainly the failure of the bill is a victory for the animals who are abused,” says Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, who said the bill “would have certainly deprived animals of even the most minimal of legal protections that they have now.”

Although Florida’s version of the bill may be dead, interests such as industrial agri-business giant Monsanto have been pushing a similar measure in Iowa.  Even with state protections afforded to whistleblowers as well as those outlined in the Food Safety and Modernization Act, many fear if even a single state were to pass a so called “ag-gag bill,” the ripple effect could prove detrimental.

“I’d be concerned that a state law would be a sufficient enough deterrent that it would chill the sort of activism that is providing this insight into what’s occurring,” says Wayne Pacelle, CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.  “I think we’d probably have to offer some legal challenges to them, but I know that they are trying to craft these bills in a way that is constitutionally defensible.  Whether they can meet that standard is uncertain, but we’re going to work very hard to do all that we can to block it so we don’t have to get to that circumstance.”

From the outset, Norman’s bill had been vehemently opposed by animal advocacy organizations as an attempt to criminalize whistleblowers.  Undercover investigations have been responsible for exposing the conditions in which animals raised for food face on a daily basis to the general public, oftentimes shocking consumers with footage of standard industry practices that violate no laws yet are extremely graphic to witness.  Several high-profile cases have have resulted in convictions against abusers, entire factories being shuttered, and mass food recalls, including the largest beef recall in U.S. history. A 1999 investigation in Florida by the Humane Society culminated with the adoption of the Humane Slaughter and Euthanasia Laws.

Norman acknowledged that he had crafted the legislation along with the Florida Farm Bureau at the behest of one of the state’s largest egg producers, Wilton Simpson, who recently announced his intention to run for state Senate in 2012.

Legal experts had warned of the numerous issues that would arise under the U.S. and state Constitutions, as well as legal provide for whistleblowers.  CNN even hosted a debate last month on the proposed laws, in which legal analyst Sunny Hostin decried the legislation as “disingenuous,” pointing to the fact that lawmakers behind the legislation acknowledge that even in instances where what is being filmed is an accurate representation, doing so would be illegal.

“These bill have other, even more serious constitutional problems [with regard to] preventing people from speaking out to expose criminal activities or to document them,” Kerr said.  “If you witness criminal activity at your workplace what are you supposed to do, draw a picture of it? It’s beyond absurd.”

Norman, R-Tampa, had said that such a law was needed to curb patent infringement and “intellectual property theft.” Ben Parks of the Florida Farm Bureau said that the thrust of the legislation was geared towards keeping whistleblowers out of farms to “prevent them from disrupting our operations.”

Part of the rationale behind the legislation, which initially had sought to attach felony status to those found guilty of covertly filming agriculture operations before being amended to a misdemeanor, focused on protecting factory farmers from those who would seek to stage or otherwise take video or photographs out of context in order to damage the operator or further an agenda.

“We don’t need to exaggerate what goes on because what happens is bad enough,” said Pacelle. “We just want the public to see what’s going on.”

Virtually all opponents of the legislation, including some small-scale and organic farmers from Florida, contend that the larger operators simply cannot withstand public scrutiny, as many of the day to day operations at a factory farm involve practices that the public at large would find reprehensible.  Several mainstream animal advocacy groups, as well as the American Veterinary Medical Association, have called on lawmakers to propose legislation requiring the use of video cameras in slaughter facilities to prevent and expose abuse.  They argue that the need for sound animal welfare in the process of food production goes beyond any ethical issues, as the human health implications of animal abuse take form in diseases such as salmonella, E. coli, and mad cow disease.

“We’ve been pushing [for cameras] for years, and I think it’s a very realistic option that needs to be pursued because right now the facilities themselves are not taking steps to properly oversee and police their own staff and this abuse is going on and they know it’s going on,” Kerr says.   “And regulatory authorities aren’t doing their job.  We found in one of our investigations that USDA inspectors were taking meat from the people that they were inspecting and basically looking the other way, and engaged in other kinds of misconduct.”

“They’re underfunded, overstretched, and so this false ruse that they are subject to oversight by federal and state authorities is just a fallacy,” he adds.  “Cameras are the only way that you’re going to be able to properly observe what goes on, so that people don’t commit the abuse in the first place, or you’ve got records of it so you can take appropriate steps when it does happen.”

A handful of factory farms have voluntarily installed cameras in their operations, yet this effort will likely not appease advocacy groups who are pushing for the practice to become the industry standard.

Messages left with both Sen. Norman and Wilton Simpson seeking comment for this story were not returned.

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