Ag gag

Mother Jones has a long and informative piece on whistle-blowing in the agriculture industry, and a campaign to pass laws criminalizing it.

PETA was urging prosecutors to go beyond plea agreements for farmworkers; they wanted charges against farm owners and their corporate backers, to hold them responsible for crimes committed by undertrained, overburdened employees.

This prospect scared industrial-scale meat producers into organizing a coordinated pushback. Recognizing that, in the era of smartphones and social media, any worker could easily shoot and distribute damning video, meat producers began pressing for legislation that would outlaw this kind of whistleblowing. Publicly, MowMar pledged to institute a zero-tolerance policy against abuse and even to look into installing video monitoring in its barns. And yet last summer, at the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, MowMar’s co-owner Lynn Becker recommended that each farm hire a spokesperson to “get your side of the story out” and called the release of PETA’s video “the 9/11 event of animal care in our industry.”

As overheated as likening that incident to a terrorist attack may seem, such thinking has become woven into the massive lobbying effort that agribusiness has launched to enact a series of measures known (in a term coined by the New York Times‘ Mark Bittman) as ag gag. Though different in scope and details, the laws (enacted in 8 states and introduced in 15 more) are viewed by many as undercutting—and even criminalizing—the exercise of First Amendment rights by investigative reporters and activists, whom the industry accuses of “animal and ecological terrorism.”

You know…if there’s any industry you don’t want protected by gag laws, it’s agriculture. You know? Food? Food that you put into your body? Food that you put into your children’s bodies? Food that schools put into children’s bodies? You don’t want that veiled in secrecy. You know enough about the industry to know that. We all do. You don’t want them bulking up the product with floor-sweepings and no one the wiser.

The release of the MowMar Farms video could have been a gut-check for the industry, a moment to reflect on whether the runaway growth had led to conditions unsafe for man or beast, perhaps even an opening for dialogue with animal welfare advocates. Instead, Julie H. Craven, the spokeswoman for Hormel, went on the offensive against PETA, criticizing its practice of methodically building cases over a period of months in order to demonstrate patterns of abuse. “If they are truly concerned about animal welfare,” she said, “they should release information when they obtain it.”

It marked a transition in the industry’s strategy: Where once it had pushed back against journalists and whistleblowers after their videos ignited public outrage, now they were looking for a way to prevent such exposure in the first place. Soon afterward, meat industry lobbyists dusted off a long-dormant piece of model legislation crafted by a conservative think tank that would not only make it harder to release undercover video but would criminalize obtaining, possessing, or distributing it to anyone—including journalists or regulators.

Cindy Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Pork Board, told me she thought such legal protections could be appropriate. “I liken it to somebody walking into your living room and taking video,” she said. “If you’re at a cocktail party and somebody shoots video of you from behind a candle—like they did to Mitt Romney—is that legitimate?”

When you’re one of two candidates for president of the US? Yes. When you produce food for sale? Yes.

BACK IN SEPTEMBER 2003, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) released a piece of model legislation it called the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act. Like so many bills drafted by the free-market think tank, AETA was handed over, ready made, to legislators with the idea that it could be introduced in statehouses across the country with minimal modification. Under the measure, it would become a felony (if damages exceed $500) to enter “an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means,” and, in a flush of Patriot Act-era overreaching, those convicted of making such recordings would also be placed on a permanent “terrorist registry.”

A felony to go into an animal facility to take pictures. Wow – that’s not very freedom.

…in what some animal rights activists have called an “evolutionary change” in strategy, Missouri and Nebraska lawmakers introduced bills that include provisions for what is termed “quick reporting”—a concept ostensibly intended to protect animals, but that de facto makes it impossible for journalists or activists to build a convincing case of sustained abuse. Under some of these new provisos, activists or whistleblowers would be required to submit written reports of any signs of abuse they witnessed and all supporting evidence to authorities within a matter of hours—or face criminal charges themselves. Whistleblowers would not even be allowed to keep any copies of materials they submitted to authorities. Critics say the measures are a cynical warping of so-called good Samaritan measures that require reporting child abuse or sexual assault. Only in this case, by analogy, a teacher who later came to suspect child abuse could be prosecuted for not reporting the first bump or bruise.

“It’s absurd,” said Amanda Hitt at the Government Accountability Project. She said she couldn’t believe that an industry that has been so regularly recorded breaking the law “would then have the audacity to come to any state legislative body and say, ‘Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do us a favor and criminalize catching us?'”

And yet they do, and not only that, but some state legislative bodies are replying, “Why certainly, we’d be glad to.”


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