AG GAG LAWS: Even if your state offers such protection, good employment practices & record keeping is important

By: Lauren Caggiano

Livestock producers need to be proactive when it comes to preserving their public image and not rely exclusively on the protection of anti-whistleblower laws, says one expert.

Cari Rincker of New York-based Rincker Law, touched on this topic in a recent presentation at the New York State Bar Association’s annual meeting. In her presentation, “Advising the Livestock Producer on Ag Gag Laws,” she offered a working definition of these so-called “ag gag laws,” their implications, and actions producers can take to counter bad publicity or maintain a positive image.

In the context of agriculture, Rincker says “ag gag” laws are designed to restrict employees from taking photographs or videos illustrating alleged cruelty to animals, food safety issues, and/or poor working conditions and/or restrict people such as activist and undercover journalists from obtaining illegal access (commonly through job application fraud) onto agricultural operations for this purpose.

Third-party access can be detrimental to producers, for several reasons. In her presentation she explains that exposure, in the form of photos or video, only presents one side of the story. She notes these videos are often times taken out of context.

“The video and photography does not accurately portray what happens on the farm day in and day out; instead, it shows the worst isolated incidents that can usually be explained,” Rincker notes.

While controversial, producers should be aware these laws are not universal. To date, Kansas, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, Iowa and Missouri all have anti-whistleblower laws in place, and several other states have proposed but failed to pass legislation like this. Therefore the majority of states don’t have ag gag laws in place. Even if your state has an ag gag law, that doesn’t mean producers should turn a blind eye. Rincker says “whether or not you live in a state with an ag gag law, livestock operators need to have good employment practices in place.”

“It should happen as a matter of course,” Rincker says about implementing such practices. “Times are changing and producers need to be more diligent.”

Such practices should include thorough interviewing, reference checks, background checks, and posting notices of prohibited devices–like smartphones–in the workplace.

Producers should also invest their energies into what she refers to as “positive marketing,” to build goodwill in the community. Such examples include voluntarily participating in livestock animal welfare programs. Operators can also foster a culture of transparency by investing in an online presence, too. A website with a virtual tour of the operation, and posts on social media channels can be means to engage the public. Other ways operators can keep up their image might include sponsoring a local baseball team, joining the PTA, offering a farm tour or getting involved in the local 4-H fair.

If all else fails, detailed record-keeping is a defensive move. Rincker says “farms should consider keeping as much documentation that they can on everything they are doing right to care for their animals each day. This will be useful in court for any defense against animal cruelty charges.”

“Being proactive is multi-faceted,” she says in summary. “Producers should be equally concerned with hiring practices, as well as their reputation in the community.”