Bill Knight – May 22
1:36 pm
Wed May 21, 2014

Ag Gag to Hide Food-Related Problems

As recently reported, Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea killed millions of piglets in 27 states this year. Possibly originating in China, Iowa farmers were hurt the worst.

But if something like that happened to be uncovered by Iowa whistleblowers, the whistleblowers could be prosecuted.

In some states, E coli, salmonella and a whole host of food-related problems might go unreported where there’s an “ag gag.”

Piglets
Piglets
Credit Harvest Public Media

Steve Hallock in Gateway Journalism Review wrote, “Following the pattern of voter repression initiatives, anti-union proposals and anti-abortion bills, this special-interest legislation is marching through states aimed at protecting big agribusiness from efforts to shed light on a growing tide of animal abuse.”

Designed to discourage whistleblowers, journalists and other truth-tellers by criminalizing fact-gathering, this suppression legislation is prior restraint, critics say. Amanda Hitt from the Government Accountability Project said the trend is like chronic lawbreakers saying, “Hey, we’re sick of getting caught doing crimes. Could you do us a favor and criminalize catching us?”

Ag-gag laws have been enacted in Iowa, Missouri and seven other states; five other states have pending ag-gag legislation. In Illinois, the Animal Registration under False Pretenses Act, which criminalized getting unauthorized access to an animal facility, was repealed last year. Also last year, State Sen. Chapin Rose (R-Champaign) sponsored a similar measure, which passed in the Senate but died in the House. His bill would have criminalized complaining about a person or entity if it was “unfounded and made with the intent to harass the person or entity,” but it hasn’t been revived, according to a legislative aide.

Decades ago, State Sen. Todd Sieben, a Geneseo Republican, sponsored a measure that would have criminalized any published or broadcast criticism of a farm product or producer that later proved to be erroneous. Arguably, it could have made it impossible to fully cover topics ranging from hormone usage in dairy cattle, herbicide runoff and genetically modified crops to huge confinement operations, ethanol subsidies or even commodity price analysis.

Based on model language drafted by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), backed by the right-wing Koch brothers, the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act of 2006 (AETA) prohibits anyone from engaging in conduct “for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise.” Passed during the Bush administration, it exploited the FBI’s 2004 designation of environmental and animal-right groups as “terror threats,” equating whistle-blowing with terrorism.

The Center for Constitutional Rights is suing on the grounds that the law infringes on the First Amendment.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ryan Shapiro commented, “It’s time to do away with the undemocratic and unconstitutional AETA, Corporate power should not dictate the limits of political dissent.”

Such laws cover up illegal or unsafe activities and also stop environmental workers’ rights whistle-blowing. Some anti-whistleblower sentiments are traced to 1989’s expose of Uniroyal Chemical’s Alar from CBS’ “60 Minutes,” which reported on the dangers of the chemical used by apple growers to enhance color and regulate growth.

Bill Knight
Bill Knight

John Stauber of PR Watch, a watchdog group, commented, “The food industry said ‘never again’ and set out to convince the news media this was a hoax,” but people had not been misinformed, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Uniroyal’s own study later confirming that Alar caused cancer, and a suit by Washington apple growers against CBS being dismissed.

From libel to trespassing, says Gregg Leslie of Reporters for Freedom of the Press, “we already have laws to handle these situations. If the point is to expose questionable practices to the public, criminalization of information should not be tolerated.”

Consumers have a right to know; whistleblowers have a right to tell.

Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center said, “Very little could be more important to the public good than understanding where our food is coming from and how it’s being processed. Efforts to limit scrutiny places agriculture industry interests ahead of the public interest.”  

Contact Bill at Bill.Knight@hotmail.com; his twice-weekly columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University