Amy Meyer wanted to see for herself where her food was coming from. But in the state of Utah, she discovered, that was against the law.
On February 8, Meyer drove to Dale Smith Meatpacking Company in Draper City, Utah, and took a look from the side of the road. She gasped as she peered through the barbed wire fence and saw what appeared to be a sick cow being treated like rubble as it was carried in a tractor. So she did what many people would do in this day and age. She got out her smartphone to begin recording.
For this, Meyer was arrested and prosecuted under Utah's new "ag-gag" law.
It turns out that similar laws are now in place not just in Utah, but also in Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa, and Missouri. And many other states are considering similar legislation.
The goal of these laws, it would appear, is to keep consumers from seeing where modern meat really comes from. Considering that 94 percent of the American public believes that animals raised for food should be free from abuse and cruelty, the modern meat industry has some good reasons to fear the public finding out that Old MacDonald's farm isn't so happy these days.
Charges against Meyer were subsequently dropped, but Utah's law is still on the books. And now Amy Meyer is joining with award-winning author Will Potter and a team of organizations in filing a lawsuit challenging her state's controversial law in the courts.
Soon thereafter, in Kansas on June 28th, a photographer working for a publication not generally seen as promoting a radical agenda, National Geographic, was arrested and briefly jailed after taking aerial pictures of a feedlot for a series on food issues to be published some time next year.
George Steinmetz has taken award-winning photos in many dangerous situations, including a series depicting post-Gaddafi Libya. But it was his photographs of U.S. feedlots, taken from a paraglider in an area with hundreds of thousands of cattle, that got him put behind bars.
Kansas has its own "ag-gag bill," called the "Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act." This law makes it illegal to "enter an animal facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera or by any other means."
Apparently, the feedlot executives may have considered paragliding to be a form of illegal entry, and they wanted Steinmetz to feel the force of the law. Industry officials said they believe his actions represent a "food security issue." Steinmetz had also parked and taken off from private property, so "trespassing" is central to the charge he now faces. But do you really think he'd have been arrested for parking there had he merely stopped to read a book?
The spread of ag-gag bills is alarming for many reasons. Aside from exposing specific incidents of animal abuse, undercover videos have also drawn attention to industry practices such as housing chickens in cramped battery cages that hasten the sickening of birds and the spread of salmonella.
Elizabeth Holmes, an attorney with the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, comments: "The reason these are public health issues, and not just animal rights issues, is that those unsanitary conditions provide breeding grounds (for disease)."
Holmes has a point. Keeping animals alive in wretched conditions requires the use of massive amounts of pharmaceutical drugs. Nearly 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to animals, not people. The antibiotic overuse that allows meat producers to keep animals in filth and misery is spawning drug-resistant superbugs.
Earlier this year, an Environmental Working Group study found antibiotic resistant "super bugs" on 81 percent of the ground turkey and 55 percent of the ground beef in America's supermarkets.
With antibiotic resistant bacteria costing us more than $55 billion and killing tens of thousands of people each year, you could even argue that today's factory farms have become a form of biological weapons factory.
But don't we have meat inspectors who monitor animal treatment? Isn't it their job to insure that the laws against excessive animal cruelty to animals, however weak they may be, are enforced? Aren't they being paid to look out for the public interest?
Unfortunately, thanks to the weight of agribusiness interests, even USDA meat inspectors don't always feel free to protect animals or public health.
After 29 years as a USDA meat inspector, Jim Schrier was recently stationed at a Tyson Foods slaughter facility in Iowa where he reported clear humane handling violations to his supervisor. That's what he was supposed to do -- report the violations to his superior in the chain of command. But when Schrier presented his concerns, the supervisor reportedly became very angry, and a week later required Jim to work at another facility 120 miles away. Then the USDA reassigned Jim permanently to a plant in another state.
In what looks an awful lot like a form of whistleblower retaliation, after 29 years of service, Schrier must now choose between his job, and his family.
When Jim's wife, Tammy, launched a petition on change.org exposing this story and calling for Jim Schrier to get his old job back, some of the first signers were other employees who had worked at the same plant and who corroborated Schrier's findings. Instead of being punished, they said, he should be rewarded and the whole plant should be inspected.
The significance of all this is huge. The first amendment to the United States constitution states: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." There are serious questions about whether ag-gag bills, and retaliation against whistleblowers like Jim Schrier, are even constitutional. But whatever the courts decide, we are already paying a terrible price for the climate of repression they institutionalize.
Shutting up people like Amy Meyer, George Steinmetz, and Jim Schrier makes it hard for any of us to know where our food comes from. Shutting them up also allows the meat industry to get away with treating animals terribly, and with jeopardizing public health by breeding antibiotic resistant bacteria. But there's more.
Tyrants of all stripes thrive in the darkness. As Thomas Jefferson once said, "A properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate."
If journalists and whistleblowers aren't allowed to speak the truth, we're going to have an awfully hard time retaining any semblance of a functioning democracy.
Ocean Robbins is co-author of Voices of the Food Revolution, and serves as CEO and co-host (with best-selling author John Robbins) of the 100,000+ member Food Revolution Network. Find out more and sign up for free here.