Impossible burgers, pig-napping and the situational ethics of 'ag-gag' laws


Michael Bugeja , Iowa View contributor, Des Moines Register

Aug. 6, 2019


Last week in Mankato, I ate my first plant-based “impossible burger.” I could barely tell the difference between it and beef as far as taste was concerned; the texture, though, was more like grilled meat loaf.


I still prefer a sirloin burger on my backyard barbecue.


Like many carnivores, I don’t think about the life of the steer when I check the fridge for condiments.


Animal activists (not to mention vegans) say that I should.


This brings us to a case in North Carolina, reported by the New York Times, in which activists concerned about antibiotics in hogs actually kidnapped one to showcase its maltreatment. The animal was stolen from an operation under contract with Smithfield Foods, the country’s largest pork producer.


Iowa’s newly enacted ag-gag law, also known as Senate File 519, was created for such infractions. An earlier version, under appeal, was deemed unconstitutional because of First Amendment concerns. The revised law criminalizes intrusions as aggravated and serious misdemeanors whenever a person or group uses deception to infiltrate livestock facilities with the intent to cause physical or economic harm.


The ACLU has argued that the law creates a new crime, “agricultural production facility trespass,” and violates First Amendment protections, including “exposés, boycotts, and protests of agricultural facilities, even though those activities may injure a business’s profits and reputation.”


Investigative reporters sometimes use deception to inform the public about wrongdoing or spurious practices that injure others. There is even a name for such stealth: “undercover journalism.” Those who suffer economic harm can sue for libel. If truth prevails, the media outlet wins.


Activists have the same rights. They blog and utilize digital applications to document (and some allege, doctor) content.


The livestock industry has argued that animal-rights advocates manipulate reports. In the case of the North Carolina pig-theft, Smithfield Foods alleged that perpetrators doctored video footage in the past to “mislead the public and gain attention for its activist agenda, which includes ‘total animal liberation.’”


North Carolina has one of the toughest ag-gag laws on the books. Business owners can sue offenders at a rate of $5,000 for each day a person gathers information or records video without authorization.


As a journalism educator, I support First Amendment arguments. I also worry that ag-gag laws have unintended consequences of implying something is amiss at production facilities; if not, why the fuss?


Agriculture in Iowa has operated for decades on the ethical concept of trust.


Courts will decide whether Iowa’s law is constitutional. Similar laws have had mixed results. Legislation was defeated in 18 states, enacted in six others, and ruled unconstitutional or under litigation in five more.


What is legal, however, may or may not be moral.


All ag-gag laws pivot on the concept of deception, a broad ethical construct. It entails a person passing off something as true and authentic knowing of its falsehood and inauthenticity.


Deception masquerades under varied guises. It is one thing for an animal-rights activist to seek employment at a hog facility under false pretenses and another to burgle a pig.


Deception involves the “means” used to commit an act, which can be moral, immoral or amoral. Ethicists typically consider whether means justify ends. Some argue that deception, in and of itself, taints the act in the eyes of others, regardless of moral intentions. Questions arise. Were there other ways to gain the information rather than fabrication, stealth or theft, for instance?


Sometimes, journalists argue, no other means are at their disposal. They employ that argument so often that there is a name for it: situational ethics.


Animal-rights activists embrace that tenet...


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