Rebekah Wilce writes at PR Watch:
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.
Read more here.