By Louis Clark
Nationwide, supporters of truth and transparency in the food system are mourning the enactment of North Carolina's anti-whistleblower Ag Gag law. Designed to chill truth-tellers who expose wrongdoing, the measure allows employers to pursue civil charges against any employees who take photographs or video, and implies that releasing footage to the public would be a violation of so-called "duty of loyalty to their employer."
While the tactics of agribusiness lobbyists to silence the truth is nothing new, the fact that they convinced North Carolina state legislators to support them (even overturning the governor's veto in the process) came as quite a shock. How far the industry is willing to go to hide its operations from public scrutiny is exactly why whistleblowers are more important than ever before.
If there's any proof of how vital undercover video is for truth-tellers, it's the case of North Carolina-based grocery chain Food Lion - featured in one of the biggest undercover exposés in the history of the Government Accountability Project (GAP). For the last 38 years, I have spent my life protecting whistleblowers, and when I recall the cases I've had, one in particular always comes to mind. It saddens me to know that if this Ag Gag law had been in effect 20 years ago, the truth about what was really happening at Food Lion may have never seen the light of day.
Back in 1991, Food Lion employees began reporting to me about shocking abuses of food safety standards in North Carolina, including:
- grinding spoiled and expired meat into sausage
- removing expiration dates from out-of-date products
- improper refrigeration of dairy and egg products
- overlooking rodent and bug infestation
- washing off meat that was slimy, greenish and putrid
- soaking poultry in bleach to conceal spoilage
- putting tomato sauce on expired chicken and selling the new product at a higher price
These employees only shared this information because of our vow to hold their identities in the strictest confidence, because their fear of management retaliation was so acute.
GAP's food safety program (before it became the Food Integrity Campaign) took their concerns to the television network ABC, which, after confirming the allegations, aired a national exposé on its investigative news show Primetime Live, subjecting Food Lion to unprecedented levels of public scrutiny.
Food Lion's corporate attorneys could have advised the company to clean up its act, but instead they decided to wage war against us. They filed an intrusive subpoena demanding confidential whistleblower information that GAP refused to reveal in order to protect the truth-telling employees' identities. We refused to comply with their demands and threats. Instead we waged a legal battle for over 10 years, ultimately prevailing.
According to Representative John Szoka, a sponsor of North Carolina's Ag Gag legislation, the Food Lion case was a motivation for the state's recently passed Ag Gag law. But I can't fathom why anyone, even politicians in the pocket of Big Ag, would not want to know about serious food safety violations that industry was trying to hide from consumers.
The Food Lion case is a prime example of how important undercover investigations are for whistleblowers, and why Ag Gag is a terrible idea. The Food Lion case is precisely why GAP dedicated significant resources to truth and transparency in agriculture, ultimately launching the Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) to help empower those in the best position to safeguard our food.
While North Carolina's move to punish the very people we aim to protect is extremely disheartening, FIC continues to challenge this and all Ag Gag measures, as well as provide resources for brave insiders who have the public interest at heart. Whistleblowers in the Tar Heel State may now have a tougher time exposing the truth, but we still have their back.
Louis Clark is President of the Government Accountability Project (GAP) - the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization. The Food Integrity Campaign is a program of GAP that levels the playing field between industry and consumers by protecting the rights of individuals who witness practices that compromise food integrity.