In an effort spearheaded by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and bankrolled by the Koch brothers and other corporate sponsors, state legislatures in most major agricultural states are being beset this year with so-called "ag-gag" bills -- repressive and misguided legislation that proposes to make it a crime to photograph or videotape operations at factory farms where animals are being raised.
The bills, part of an intensive industry lobbying effort, are a direct result of several successful efforts by citizens to document via the Internet the grim conditions at many industrial livestock operations around the country.
Perhaps the best known of these efforts was brought to light by Dean Wyatt, a veterinarian and inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Wyatt had his job threatened when he tried to report egregious violations he had found at the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif. Undaunted, he then tipped off the Humane Society, which released a now infamous video of employees at the plant horrendously abusing downed cows to bring them to slaughter -- cows that by law should be deemed unfit for human consumption because of their increased risk of illnesses such as so-called mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). The video resulted in the largest beef recall in U.S. history and an unprecedented $500 million penalty.
More recently, an undercover video exposed terrible conditions and abuses at Iowa egg farms. Not long after the video's release, a massive salmonella outbreak at two huge Iowa egg farms -- Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg -- sickened more than 1,000 people and led to the recall of a half-billion eggs, the largest egg recall in U.S. history. Last year, however, the Iowa legislature responded to the public revelations by passing an "ag gag" bill that makes such whistleblowing illegal and establishes criminal penalties for those who seek employment at Iowan factory farms under false pretenses.
"The problem with such legislation," says Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists' food and environment program, "is that industries that should be cleaning up their practices are instead digging in their heels to try to shield their actions even further from the public eye." As Gurian-Sherman explains, both science and democracy demand transparency. "In a democracy, and in the marketplace, information is critical and the public has a real right to know about the food they buy," he says. "These laws move in the wrong direction from the standpoint of public health and safety."
Aside from the issues raised about the humane treatment of animals on factory farms, the issues for human health are significant. Foodborne illness is a serious problem. As Robert Tauxe, deputy director of the division of foodborne, waterborne and environmental diseases at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported recently, some 48 million Americans -- one in six people -- gets sick from eating contaminated food each year. CDC says that in 2012 the nation's food surveillance program identified about 19,500 infections, about 4,500 hospitalizations and 68 deaths.
Ironically, "ag-gag" laws are being pushed at a time of heightened public concerns about healthy eating and the safety of the food supply. Nonetheless, ALEC's strategy, while receiving relatively little press, has proved alarmingly successful so far. Already this year, at least eleven state legislatures have debated versions of such laws. The state of Tennessee just passed an ag-gag bill at the end of April which now awaits the governor's signature. Seven states already have such laws on the books and at least five more -- Arkansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Vermont -- are now considering them.
Not only do Americans rightly pride ourselves on our First Amendment rights, but the United States has a long and proud history in which citizens' willingness to speak out and expose unsafe working conditions and environmental problems has led to increased public understanding and legislative remedies in many realms. Whistleblowers have long played an especially vital role in bringing to light health and safety issues about the food supply. Back in 1904, for instance, author Upton Sinclair famously went undercover to document the squalid conditions in Chicago's meatpacking plants. His resulting muckraking novel, The Jungle, helped spur landmark public health laws and the creation of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The ill-considered, ALEC-backed "ag gag" laws take the nation in precisely the wrong direction. It is important to remember that the public has an overriding interest in knowing about the quality and safety of the food we eat. That means greater transparency, not less. Instead of ag-gag bills, we need laws that impose basic standards on farm conditions and guarantee our right to know about how our food is being produced. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis so famously put it, "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants."
Seth Shulman, Senior Staff Writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is a veteran science journalist and author of six books whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Discover, Nature, Technology Review, Parade and many other publications. You can sign up to receive his monthly Got Science? column via email at the Union of Concerned Scientists website: www.ucsusa.org.