Source: The content for this article is from Parness & Associates Public Relations, Marty Gitlin. LeClairRyan provides business counsel and client representation in corporate law and litigation. For more information about LeClairRyan, visit www.leclairryan.com.
Animal rights activists are increasingly targeting animal agricultural businesses, such as dairy, swine and poultry farmers, with undercover video stings designed to generate maximum media attention, warns LeClairRyan shareholder David L. Cook. But agri-businesses can take proactive steps to exclude infiltrators in the first place, he says; and if there is a breach, companies can take legal and other steps to fight back.
“Since 2005, more than two dozen undercover videos have been released in more than 10 states relating to animal agriculture,” explains Cook, who represents major dairy and other agricultural businesses throughout the Northeast from his base in the national law firm’s Rochester office. “These operations use shock and sensationalism to gain media coverage and, ultimately, impact public opinion and disrupt markets.”
Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Mercy for Animals, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and Farm Sanctuary have conducted undercover operations targeting the dairy and other industries, he says.
A good defense starts with the hiring process according to Cook, who notes that a resume without animal agriculture experience could signal that an applicant is an undercover plant. “It is perfectly appropriate and legal to ask in an employment interview or on an application if a prospective employee is a member of or supports animal rights organizations,” he writes. “In addition, agricultural employers should require all employees to sign a non-disclosure and confidentiality agreement which includes a prohibition against taking or distributing photographs or video of any aspect of their employment.”
Violators should be dismissed, he adds, pointing out that in most states, an employee may be fired for any reason other than race, national origin, age, gender or sexual orientation. Dairy operations should also be protected with security and surveillance systems. In addition employees should report co-workers who are making videos, taking pictures or otherwise deviating from established policies and principles related to animal health and safety, he notes.
If a company is nonetheless targeted by an undercover operation or becomes the subject of a media report, an attorney should interview all employees who have had any kind of contact with the undercover employee and/or may have been filmed or recorded, writes Cook.