At first glance, some of the most fervent opposition against N.H. House Bill 110 stems from what seems an unlikely source.
The bill outlines new reporting requirements for cruelty against livestock and poultry that are so stringent witnesses must not only contact law enforcement about any abuse they find, but do so within 48 hours. So why is the Humane Society of the United States among the bill’s top adversaries?
State Rep. Robert Haefner, a Hudson Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor, has said the measure’s goal is to stop animal cruelty as soon as possible. But the Humane Society portrays it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing — arguing it would do just the opposite by stifling undercover investigations that bring some of the worst abuses to light.
Probes such as the Humane Society’s undercover investigation of the Bushway Packing slaughter plant in Grand Isle, Vt. — which eventually led to owner Frank Perretta pleading no contest in 2010 to a charge of animal cruelty — can take weeks, according to society spokesman Matthew T. Dominguez.
“The industry knows that we can’t do that in 24 (to) 48 hours,” he said, arguing that putting a time limit on evidence gathering is one way similar proposals across the country seek to undermine investigatory efforts. Opponents blast these measures as “ag-gag” or “anti-whistleblower” bills, and the Humane Society is part of a diverse roster of groups ranging from the Sierra Club to the ACLU campaigning against them.
As introduced, New Hampshire’s bill — which counts local legislators Rep. Tara Sad, D-Walpole, and Sen. Bob Odell, R-Lempster, among its cosponsors — not only would have required people to report animal cruelty they witness within 24 hours (later amended to 48) but mandated they turn over any photos or video recordings to law enforcement officials.
The latter requirement would have had a chilling effect on activists and journalists alike, and we’re pleased it was stricken in the version of the bill supported by the House’s Environment and Agriculture Committee.
But despite this amendment, we disagree with the 11 committee members who voted the measure “ought to pass.” (Six deemed it “inexpedient to legislate.” The bill could come before the full House as early as today, although co-sponsor Rep. Stephen Shurtleff, D-Penacook, said he understands a motion will be made to table it.)
One of the bill’s aims, according to Haefner, is to prevent New Hampshire’s farmers from being accused in the court of public opinion without ever being formally charged.
But legal protections against libel and slander already exist for that purpose, and any operation that’s been wrongly accused can seek relief under them.
While we applaud efforts to uncover animal cruelty, forcing investigators to unveil their findings within two days is hardly the most effective method. Instead of documenting patterns of abuse that could prompt real consequence and change, investigators would be relegated to skimming the surface. Facilities could more easily dismiss a systemic problem as an isolated misstep. And simultaneously, the Humane Society argues, they could avoid scrutiny of other lapses — in working conditions, food safety and environmental standards.
For chickens, cows and consumers alike, HB 110 strikes us as a raw deal .