Wave of "Ag Gag" Bills Threaten Food Safety and Freedom of the Press
Remember "fecal soup"? A CBS "60 Minutes" exposé in 1987 documented widespread food safety violations by the poultry industry, making use of undercover video from a hidden camera placed by the "60 Minutes" crew. The episode vindicated U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) whistleblower Hobart Bartley, who had been ignored and threatened by his superiors and finally transferred to another plant when he warned of unsanitary conditions at a Simmons Industries plant in Missouri. Bartley was particularly irate about the "eight-foot-high vat of water called the 'chiller,' where as many as 10,000 chicken carcasses were routinely left to float, soaking up moisture to increase their selling weight. Dried blood, feces, and hair were floating in along with the dead birds. Diane Sawyer later called it 'fecal soup.'"
In the modern era, effective enforcement of food safety and the humane treatment of animals has long relied on undercover video investigations by reporters and citizens. The footage and images gained can serve as proof of criminal wrongdoing or lay ugly practices bare. Such images can vindicate whistleblowers who otherwise risk retaliation when speaking up. Now this practice, which has time and time again exposed hidden dangers -- including downer cows linked to Mad Cow disease in the food supply -- is under threat by a series of state bills dubbed "ag gag" bills.
Recent Ag Gag Law in Florida, Followed by 17 Others in Two Years
In 2011, a 21 million egg-a-year Florida producer, Wilton Simpson of Simpson Farms, requested a bill from then-state Florida Senator Jim Norman.
At Simpson's behest, in February 2011 Norman introduced a bill to the Florida Senate that would make photography "at or of a farm" a first-degree felony. SB1246, the "Farms" bill, and copycat bills in Minnesota and Iowa would later be called "ag gag" bills by the New York Times' Mark Bittman.
Simpson and the Florida Farm Bureau wanted to "deter animal-rights activists from obtaining imagery used to harm the industry," according to The Florida Independent, but the bill as written would have applied to anyone, including journalists. The bill died in committee in 2012.
But while Florida's bill did not pass, similar "ag gag" bills were introduced in Iowa, Minnesota, and New York in 2011. A modified bill passed in Iowa in March 2012. The bill's proponents in the Iowa state legislature were heavily funded by corporate agribusiness interests.
2012 saw the introduction of similar bills in six more states. "Ag gag" became law in Utah, and a modified version was signed into law in Missouri. Nine "ag gag" bills have been introduced so far in 2013: in New Hampshire, Wyoming, Nebraska, Indiana, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Tennessee, and New Mexico. (See the Center for Media and Democracy's article on SourceWatch for more.)
New Tactic Devised to Make Bills Legal
In its original form, the "ag gag" bill was a blatant violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression and would have quashed the right of independent investigators to document the truth. So legislators in Iowa and Utah changed the bills to make lying on employment applications a crime. Now factory farms and slaughterhouses can screen out reporters and other investigators by asking on job applications, "Are you affiliated with a news organization, labor union, or animal protection group?"
A former Humane Society investigator, Cody Carlson, wrote in The Atlantic, "Two years ago, I had to answer a similar question when I applied to work at the nation's second biggest egg producer, located in Thompson, Iowa. If the Ag Gag law had been in effect then, I might be writing this article from a cell." The same would have been true for a New York Times or Chicago Tribune investigative reporter.
Instead, Carlson was able to work undercover at four Iowa egg farms in the winter of 2010 and expose abuses such as manure pits not cleaned or maintained in multiple years, and laying hens with unnoticed and untreated prolapsed uteruses.
Carlson wrote, "A few months later, Iowa's egg farms were in the news again when nearly identical conditions were found at several other locations, this time by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The farms were at the center of a massive salmonella outbreak that caused the biggest egg recall in United States history."
March of Bills Have Roots in ALEC
The ideological ancestor of these bills is a 2002 "model" bill called the "Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act" (AETA) pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate bill mill responsible for spreading 2011's spate of "voter ID" laws and the NRA-drafted "Stand your Ground" law, as Green is the New Red author Will Potter points out.
AETA broadly prohibits various kinds of "obstruction" of "an animal or natural resource activity," including by damage or destruction, trespassing, as well as "entering an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner."
The newer "ag gag" bills focus more exclusively on "prohibiting a person from entering onto a farm or photographing or video recording a farm without the owner’s written consent" (from Florida's 2011 bill).
ALEC approved AETA and started pushing it both in the states and at the federal level in January 2004, with its publication of the propaganda pamphlet "Animal & Ecological Terrorism in America." According to a text comparison performed by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD), the ALEC bill appears to be based on a 1990 Kansas bill called the "Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act."
After ALEC started pushing the bill, it was introduced in Tennessee in 2006, but died in committee; a limited version was passed in California in 2008; and a nearly identical bill was introduced in Washington State in 2010 (see CMD's text comparison here), but died in committee.
As the New York Times' Mark Bittman commented in the first wave of bill introductions two years ago, "The biggest problem of all is that we’ve created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane, and the kinds of abuses documented [by the investigations criminalized by the bills] are really just reminders of that."
The path between Washington's 2010 bill and Florida's 2011 bill is not clear, but it is clear that the intended result is the same. "Ag gag" bills seek to prevent the documentation and exposure of safety violations and atrocities in animal industries by criminalizing them and labeling them "obstruction." In other words, turn off the tape and bury the evidence rather than reforming the system.