The Value of Whistleblowers: Why Ag Gag & Co. Are a Public Health Threat

Margaret Riche is GRACE’s Public Service Scholar. Riche is in her final year at Hunter College, where she is studying public service, creative writing and is participating in the interdisciplinary Thomas Hunter Honors program.

On February 28th, 2012, House File 589 passed in the Iowa Senate, creating the first 'ag gag' law in America. Openly backed by the industrial farming lobby, HF 589 criminalizes undercover efforts to expose cruel and unsafe conditions on factory farms.

When corruption happens behind closed doors, whistle blowers are the ones who let us in. Late last month Josh Fox, who exposed the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in his documentary Gasland, was arrested at a House Science Committee meeting while trying to videotape a hearing on water contamination in Wyoming. As he was led from the hearing in handcuffs, Fox was heard saying "I'm within my First Amendment rights, and I'm being taken out!"

Fox just found out what animal activists – and increasingly, others who speak out about food have known for years. Activists who expose truths that threaten the profits of big business are more and more becoming targets for legal action.

For over a century, whistleblowers have shown consumers that industrial food production is a far cry from the traditional family farm image invoked by food marketers. A more realistic picture is revealed by the most recent undercover videos released by the  Humane Society of the United States, shot at one of the largest pork producers in the United States, Seaboard Farms. The videos – which according to Seaboard, prove that the their operations were completely above board – elicited strong reactions amongst consumers.

One of the world’s best known meat industry whistleblower, Upton Sinclair, went undercover in several of Chicago’s meat packing plants and slaughterhouses in 1904.  He portrayed his findings in vivid detail in his novel, The Jungle. Readers were horrified by the disgusting conditions - human and rat bodies freely mingling with the processed meat, workers regularly washing their hands in water later used in the rendering process and “upon tens of thousands of cattle crowded into pens whose wooden floors stank and steamed contagion.” His descriptions of these filthy and dangerous conditions spurred a great public outcry, and government reacted by creating the Meat Inspection Act, the Pure Food and Drug Act and eventually establishing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Over 100 years later  state and federal law makers are reacting very differently to the undercover investigations that continue at factory farms. Last year, Mercy For Animals released three undercover videos shot at Iowa-based Sparboe Farms, which document workers perpetrating horrifying acts of abuse, including needlessly killing cows and calves with pick axes. The wave of media coverage led McDonald’s to drop Sparboe, which at the time provided all of the fast food giant’s eggs west of the Mississippi. While the FDA did publicly issue a citation to Sparboe for “significant violations” based on this undercover footage, lobbyists and lawmakers were simultaneously working behind the scenes on legislation that criminalizes undercover investigations.

In 2011, “Ag gag” laws (a clever nickname coined by Mark Bittman), which would explicitly prohibit the making of undercover videos, photographs and audio recordings at farms, were proposed in Iowa, Florida, New York and Minnesota. Paul Shapiro, head of the Humane Society of the United States, commented that “These draconian bills to silence whistle-blowers show just how far the animal agribusiness industry is willing to go, and just how much the industry has to hide.” Thanks to the work of sustainable agriculture advocates, this legislation, backed by industry giants like Monsanto, was tabled in all states (though it continues to be reintroduced).  I spoke to Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel, to discuss the implications of the Ag gag laws:

Industry is really threatened by those who go on farms and take pictures of activities that most consumers would find completely unacceptable. Here’s how it goes: an activist goes to a really big farm that has really bad practices, takes pictures, posts them online and uses that as leverage to push the farms to change their practice or to push legislation to make those practices illegal. One might think that after something like that, a legislator would push for more transparency for practices on farms, but because of the way that industry controls legislation with money, we are actually seeing legislators pushing to make it illegal to take pictures of farms at all.

Under Viertel’s leadership, Slow Food USA shone a light on the Ag gag rules through their Farmarazzi campaign, which encouraged people to send in their photos of farm animals raised humanely, emphasizing the organization’s pro-farmer stance.

A lot of people were advocating to stop these laws. We wanted to join that fight, but we wanted to join the fight and make it clear we are pro-farmer; we love our farmers. We want to prove there’s an alternative to the industrial food system. So we said let’s take a picture of the farmers you love. We had a petition that over 40,000 people signed. Hundreds of people took pictures of farms that they love. The pictures are beautiful and they should be. The bills died in all four states.

But the legal threats to whistleblowers are far from over.  According to a recently released 2003 FBI Task Force file, the FBI can charge undercover activists as terrorists, and thanks to the  highly-contentious Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, it is illegal to “interfere with the operations of an animal enterprise.” The AETA came in response to the controversial animal rights campaign, Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty (SHAC), which targeted Huntingon Life Sciences, an animal testing facility where undercover video footage revealed horrible abuse and galvanized many to fight for the animal testing lab to be shut down. In 2006, activists running the SHAC website were charged under the AETA conspiracy provision, despite a lack of proof that the defendants committed or had any knowledge of the majority of the illegal acts undertaken by participants in the SHAC campaign. The act criminalizes causing damage or loss to real or personal properties of an enterprise, and is written so vaguely that profit could fall under “personal property,” meaning that any advocate who causes an enterprise to lose customers and money could be subject to the AETA.

President Roosevelt may have famously referred to Upton Sinclair as a “crackpot,” but he did eventually send in his own undercover investigators to assess the situation in the nation’s slaughterhouses, and when his agents confirmed Sinclair’s reports, Roosevelt instituted reforms. Today, whistleblowers are often painted as terrorists, and even without the Ag gag rules, can face jail time, thanks to the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2012, which legalizes indefinite detention of American citizens accused of terrorism.

Under the Veggie Libel laws, even talking about food can get you in trouble. These laws, passed in thirteen states, make it considerably easier for agri-business to sue their critics for libel. Oprah was famously sued by the Texas Beef Group after a discussion on her show about mad cow disease. Oprah spent a year shooting her show from Texas while fighting the charges and eventually won the suit, but steered clear of food issues for years. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader famously said, "The realistic objective of the frivolous 'veggie-libel' statutes and lawsuits is not money. It is to send a chilling message to millions of people that they better keep their opinions to themselves." Other notable examples of those who have had their reporting suppressed are investigative reporters Jane Aker and Steve Wilson, who were repeatedly silenced by Fox News for their reporting on Monsanto’s use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). Another Monsanto whistle blower, scientist Arpad Pusztai, had his contract suspended and his data seized after he stated that rats fed genetically modified potato had stunted growth and a repressed immune system.

These bills — Ag gag, AETA, the Veggie Libel Laws  and the NDAA threaten transparency and marginalize the voices of activists. Viertel warns, “Anytime there’s advocacy for change, if the opposition is sophisticated, they will look for a way to take the tools. We must fight for the tools.”

The internet, of course, is one of these tools – 25 years ago, the videos distributed by Mercy for Animals and Humane Society would have been unlikely to reach a large audience, but thanks to technology, concerned eaters can forward them as they please. Not surprisingly, laws have been introduced that would impose restrictions on the internet and place undue power in the hands of corporations. Recently the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) received national attention, when scores of technophiles organized the largest internet protest to date over a bill which, supported by big players in Hollywood and the music industry, would have greatly expanded law enforcement’s ability to impose restrictions on the internet. The bill has since been tabled, but threats to our freedoms persist, particularly for those who challenge the status quo and advocate for progressive change.

So what can you do?  First, it is important to stay informed. Reading blogs like Ecocentric, Green is the New Red and Food Democracy Now! can help you do so. Individually, we must strive to make educated and ethical consumptive choices. Viertel suggests that we can make headway on the important issue of food transparency by simply talking to our local farmers at the farmers' market about the food they produce. On a community level, we should engage others in dialogs and press for policies that reflect our values.

There will always be structural barriers to change that we as advocates confront, but we must be vigilant in protecting our right to “take the red pill,”find the truth and to raise awareness. We must continue to stand up against legislation that attacks activists and seeks to limit transparency and dialog, and that protects moneyed interests at the expense of the public good.