by Amanda Hitt
The use of undercover video, audio, and photographs to promote transparency in our food system has proved essential in holding bad actors accountable. Exposés have been so successful that in 2011 the practice came under widespread attack in the form of numerous states' proposed anti-whistleblower legislation, referred to as "Ag Gag" bills, which criminalize the act of videotaping acts of cruelty and wrongdoing in animal and other agricultural facilities.
Essentially, these bills make it a crime to report a crime.
Since 2011, Ag Gag bills have continued to show up across the nation. In 2013, they cropped up in 11 states with the last bill failing in late July: North Carolina's legislature adjourned without approving the problematic measure which would stop workers from effectively blowing the whistle on cruel agriculture (as well as other industries). Thankfully, North Carolina realized in time that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from and employees have the right to tell without threat of criminal prosecution.
North Carolina, like the other states, was drafting its legislation under the influence of Big Ag lobbyists. Yes, undercover video of abuse and misconduct has an impact on company bottom lines. I get that. But the answer is not having private interests lobby state legislators to help you commit crimes without consequence. Fortunately, corporate agriculture lobbyists did not go unopposed. The Food Integrity Campaign was joined by 70 other organizations which together represent millions of people and stand for causes such as ending needless suffering, ensuring safe food and water, stopping the exploitation of workers and preserving the validity of the United States Constitution.
We didn't win them all. Unfortunately, in 2012, we lost Utah and Iowa. But I don't consider those state wins by Big Ag to be society's total loss. In fact, it's just the opposite. These newly minted Ag Gag laws have attracted the same national scrutiny that these states were attempting to legislate away in the first place. It's become clear: Ag Gag is toxic to the states contemplating them. Because for all Big Ag's attempts to keep consumers in the dark, in the glare of the media spotlight, and with concerned consumers asking "what do you have to hide," it was revealed that Ag Gag is nothing more than a greedy industry attempt at hiding wrongdoing at the peril of animal welfare, food safety, worker rights and the environment.
Ag Gag isn't a state specific way of protecting the "freedom to farm." It's a matter of global public health concern. Informed consumers know -- what happens in Iowa doesn't always stay in Iowa. Iowa eggs are not consumed by Iowans alone.
Let's put this in perspective. Iowa, which recently passed an Ag Gag bill, is the nation's largest egg producer (14.5 billion eggs per year). Odds are that eggs from Iowa are on your child's plate. And with no whistleblowers to catch agro-criminals in the act, odds are pretty good those eggs could have come from a filthy factory farm like DeCoster's.
It's almost unimaginable, but the very federally protected whistleblower activities provided to government meat inspectors working in Iowa slaughter plants are considered crimes when disclosed by Iowa plant workers. I wonder what Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley, a stalwart defender and proponent of whistleblower rights (in fact the co-sponsor of the federal Whistleblower Protection Act), has to say about Ag Gag. I can only presume he's happy to know that USDA meat inspector Jim Schrier was able to take advantage of his federal protections when he blew the whistle on inhumane slaughter practices. But I hope Grassley is also concerned that the rest of the private industry workers at Schrier's Tyson Foods pork slaughter plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa, are scared into silence by the state Ag Gag law.
We went 11-0 in 2013 and with each victory exposed Americans to what's really happening behind the barn doors. In this upcoming session, I hope states being lobbied by corporate interests take a pass on Ag Gag and start rebuilding consumer confidence in the integrity of the food they produce. Don't be the sketchy state with something to hide.
Amanda Hitt is Food Integrity Campaign Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.