By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO - A statewide cattlemen's group is facing criticism over a bill it's sponsoring in the state Legislature to require those who document agricultural animal abuse to share the information promptly with law enforcement.
The California Cattlemen's Association is behind Assembly Bill 343, which would give people who "knowingly or willingly" take photographs or video of abuse 48 hours to provide copies to the local police or sheriff's department.
The bill is a way for the industry to be proactive in stopping abuse by responding to it more quickly and preventing further suffering for animals, asserted Justin Oldfield, the CCA's vice president of government relations.
"The entire intent and emphasis behind the bill is to prevent further animal abuse and protect animal welfare and food safety," Oldfield said. "The merits of the bill really stand out for themselves. Anybody who wants to know what the bill does or doesn't do should just read the bill."
However, the legislation by Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, has drawn fire from the Humane Society of the United States, which contends it is merely an effort to discourage people from gathering evidence of animal abuse.
"In short, this is a bill intended to suppress whistleblowers, pure and simple," HSUS spokesman Paul Shapiro said. "For that reason it should be rejected."
The bill comes after a spate of undercover videos taken by representatives of animal welfare organizations have given a series of black eyes to livestock industries. Last year, for instance, videos depicting abuse at dairies in Central California and southern Idaho had industry officials scrambling to convince consumers that the incidents were isolated.
A landmark $500 million agreement was reached in November to settle a slaughterhouse abuse case that led to the biggest meat recall in U.S. history in 2008. The civil settlement with the owners of Westland/Hallmark Meat Co. came after a widely circulated video shot by an undercover operative showed "downer cows" - those too weak or sick to walk - being dragged by chains, rammed by forklifts and sprayed with high-pressure water to coax them to slaughter.
That video footage was gathered over a six-week period, Oldfield noted. If the operative had shared the information with law enforcement sooner, "think about how many cows wouldn't have suffered ... and been put into the food supply," he said.
The bill doesn't require original copies of videos to be handed over to police, Oldfield said. It also protects employees by applying the state's current whistleblower protection laws to those collecting such evidence, the CCA asserts.
But requiring evidence to be brought forth within a 48-hour window is unreasonable, Shapiro counters. Sometimes it takes weeks to document a pattern of abuse, he said.
"Just in the same way we wouldn't ask law enforcement to immediately blow their cover and go public with all their evidence two days into their investigation, the same is the case here," he said.
Asked if he believes undercover activists should be given the same authority as police, he said, "I'm just using it as an example to illustrate that if you're building a case of a pattern of abuse, it can often take weeks."
Oldfield said the CCA is willing to negotiate on the length of time, but "it's not going to be six weeks." He added that even one instance of abuse is a crime in California, eliminating the need to prove a pattern.
Assembly Bill 343
Proposal: Require those who take photos or video of agricultural animal abuse to notify law enforcement within 48 hours.
Author: Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, http://arc.asm.ca.gov/member/AD23/?p=pr
Proponents include: California Cattlemen's Association: http://www.calcattlemen.org/
Critics include: Humane Society of the United States: http://www.humanesociety.org/
Read the bill: http://leginfo.ca.gov/