Ag-Gag Laws And Public Trust
Consumers are often shocked when confronted with undercover footage from livestock farms that reveals sick, abused animals in terrible conditions. In one recent example, secret footage of Fair Oaks Farms outraged the public and showed that even organic, non-factory farms are not always the idyllic environments they are advertised to be. Unsurprisingly, farmers and others who are invested in the livestock industry have fought back by backing legislation to stop such footage and details from reaching the public.
Such laws – sometimes referred to as “ag-gag laws” – attempt to protect the image of animal farming by restricting the flow of information to the public. However, polls taken in 2011 and 2012 indicate that once informed about such laws, the public opposes them. Additionally, even 60% of the readers of a major cow meat industry publication did not agree that the industry should pursue ag-gag laws. Nevertheless, ag-gag laws continue to pop up (and sometimes get struck back down).
This study investigated the impact of ag-gag laws on the public’s perception of animal agriculture. 716 U.S. adults were included in the final sample of online survey respondents. Participants were randomly assigned to either the Law group or the Control group. Those assigned to the Law group were informed about typical features of ag-gag laws, and then were presented with counterbalanced arguments in favor of and against such laws. Those assigned to the Control group instead simply read a neutral article about hay. Then, the two groups were asked the same survey questions to gauge their perceptions of animal agriculture.
A “trust score” between 1-7 was calculated for each participant based on their survey answers to indicate how much each person trusted various facets of animal agriculture after reading the information presented to their assigned group. The average score for trust in farmers for Law group participants was a significant 0.88 points lower than the trust score for Control group participants. Overall, Republicans, those living in rural areas, and omnivores had comparatively higher trust in farmers compared to Democrats, those living in suburban or urban areas, and vegetarians. However, the Republicans, rural folk, and omnivores who read the material for the Law group actually ended up having less trust in farmers compared to Democrats, suburban/urbanites, and vegetarians who read the material for the Control Group.
The difference in trust scores between the average Control group member and Law group member did not vary by demographics. This shows, for example, that Republicans were just as affected by learning about ag-gag laws as were Democrats. Similar results were found for other measures, with those in the Law group scoring (on average) 0.73 points lower on perceptions towards farm animal welfare, 0.50 points lower on the perception that farmers do a good job on protecting the environment, and 0.23 points higher in favoring stricter laws to protect farmed animals. Reading about ag-gag laws did not significantly affect participants’ perceptions of food safety or worker’s rights.
These results show that just learning about ag-gag laws themselves can make people less trusting of animal agriculture. The authors point out that the change in trust between the Control and Law groups represents an important tipping point from slightly trusting to slightly distrusting farmers. Overall, it can be gathered that ag-gag laws create the perception that the animal agriculture industry has something to hide, thus making people who are informed about these laws more distrustful of the industry as a whole, and more likely to support farm animal protection measures. The fact that only 9% of Law group participants in this study had heard about ag-gag laws before is consistent with the general public’s lack of awareness of these laws. Thus, bringing more awareness to ag-gag laws could be a promising way for activists to get the public to think more critically about animal agriculture.