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Coalition Welcomes Defeat of All 11 Anti-Whistleblower Ag Gag Bills in 2013

FIC and many of our diverse coalition partners contributed to a statement released today by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) regarding anti-whistleblower Ag Gag legislation.

The statement reads in part:

… a broad spectrum of public interest groups today welcomed the defeat of all 11 ag-gag/anti-whistleblower bills that were introduced during 2013 legislative sessions across the country. North Carolina’s session ended on Friday without a vote on Senate Bill (SB) 648, which would have suppressed whistleblower investigations at farms and other facilities. In addition to North Carolina, ag-gag/anti-whistleblower legislation was introduced this year in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming, but no bills became law.

Ag-gag bills usually contain one or more of three provisions designed to suppress whistleblowing: the ban of photography/video on premises; the criminalization of securing a job under “false pretenses” (whistleblowers sometimes gain employment at facilities in order to obtain evidence of cruelty); and mandatory reporting of documented abuse within a short and arbitrary timeframe. Mandatory reporting provisions became more common in the most recent legislative sessions, and while on their face appear to support prosecution of abuse, actually hinder meaningful and effective investigations by mandating reporting before adequate documentation can occur. North Carolina’s bill included all three types of provisions.

Because ag-gag/whistleblower suppression bills aim to criminalize investigations on agricultural facilities that can expose animal welfare, worker, environmental, food safety and other violations and abuse through unconstitutional provisions, a wide array of interest groups have strongly opposed them, including civil liberties, environmental, prosecution, First Amendment, labor and even some farming organizations—70 of which have signed a strong opposition statement.

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Ag Gag Motivation for Journalist Arrest in Kansas?

cameraThe oldest example of an anti-whistleblower Ag Gag law, enacted in Kansas in 1990, may not have been the stated reason for the arrest of veteran photographer George Steinmetz, but the sentiment behind the controversial, transparency-stifling legislation may still have served as motivation.

Steinmetz, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, was paragliding over a cattle feedlot to take pictures for a series on food for National Geographic Magazine. After he landed, he was arrested "for entering private property uninvited before their launch."

A feedlot employee had reported to the county sheriff that he'd seen the photographer (and his flying instructor) flying over the feedlot taking pictures and that there was an SUV on the ranch property. After Steinmetz and his instructor moved to another location, the feedlot executives still insisted the two men be arrested for trespassing. They were held in jail and were released after each paid a $270 bond.

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Sign Petition to Stop Retaliation of USDA Whistleblower!

pig_usda_inspected_stampJim Schrier and his wife Tammy both worked as USDA meat inspectors at the Tyson Foods slaughter plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa. Little did they know that one of them simply doing his or her job would drastically change their daily lives, and not for the better.

Jim, a 29-year veteran inspector, reported violations of federal humane slaughter regulations to his supervisor, he was enforcing the law. But instead of addressing Jim's concerns, his supervisor became angry and punished Jim with retaliation: sending him 120 miles away to work at a different plant, far from his home and family.

This is a classic case of whistleblower retaliation, where a truthful employee who wouldn't remain silent is unfairly penalized.

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USDA Inspector Blows Whistle on Slaughterhouse Crime, Faces Retaliation

On Friday, the The Kansas City Star publicized an investigative report in the case of Government Accountability Project (GAP) client Jim Schrier, a veteran federal food safety inspector who faces retaliation after blowing the whistle on violations of humane handling regulations at a USDA-regulated Tyson Foods plant in Iowa. GAP represents Schrier in connection with his whistleblower retaliation case.

GAP Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) Director Amanda Hitt stated:

"USDA's retaliation against Mr. Schrier is in direct violation of the federal whistleblower law, and mirrors the experiences of other meat industry whistleblowers we've worked with at GAP. It is evident that internal government mechanisms for reporting abuse simply do not work. Iowa's Ag Gag law, which criminalizes undercover videotaping, is a terrible idea."

For over 20 years, GAP has worked with meat industry whistleblowers including USDA employees like Schrier, who have witnessed wrongdoing at slaughterhouses and faced serious repercussions for speaking up.

Background

Serving as a USDA meat inspector for 29 years, Schrier was recently stationed at a Tyson Foods slaughter facility in Iowa where he reported clear humane handling violations involving market hogs to his supervisor, including:

  • Conscious Animals being Shackled/Slaughtered: Schrier witnessed that pigs being shackled for slaughter were kicking and thrashing violently. This is a direct and gross violation of the USDA's humane handling violations that require pigs to be completely unconscious and unable to feel pain prior to shackling.
  • Inadequate Stunning: USDA regulations require market hogs be rendered unconscious prior to shackling and slaughter. Schrier witnessed that many pigs were having to be stunned after being shackled, indicating that the pigs hadn't been stunned properly before shackling.

When Schrier raised his humane-handling concerns to his supervisor, the supervisor became very angry, and one week later, Schrier was sent to work at another facility 120 miles away. Recently, the USDA decided to reassign him permanently to a facility in another state.

 

Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

 
 

Multiple Baby Steps in GE Food Labeling

usdaEfforts to label foods so that consumers know whether products include genetically engineered (GE) ingredients have gained momentum in recent weeks.

The most recent step toward transparency involved the Department of Agriculture's approval of a label for meat products that come from animals not fed GE products (as is the typical meal for most cows, pigs and chicken raised in America) – the first federal non-GE label claim for meat products. It would be more informative if the reverse label existed, marking meat products with a label stating the animals were fed Monsanto's GE corn, soybean or alfalfa. But it’s a notable step.

More good news emerged with GE food labeling measures passing in Connecticut and Maine. However, these state label requirements exempt meat products from animals fed GE crops (another reason the USDA label is useful).

Another caveat is that the bills will only be enforced if other states, including a neighboring state, also pass labeling requirements. Twenty-five other states have introduced similar labeling legislation but it remains uncertain how many will actually be adopted.

In related news, Chipotle became the first fast-food chain to label its menu items that contain GE ingredients, which include 12 of the 24 ingredients listed on its website! That's a huge step in transparency. However, the GE ingredients are only pointed out on the Chipotle website, not on the restaurants' wall menu, where most of its restaurant-goers will be looking.

There's a lot to be thankful for these days in the movement toward improving consumer awareness and informed food decision-making, but we still have a long way to go.

 

Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.

 
 

Tell Your U.S. Representatives to Vote No on Flawed Poultry Rule Amendment!

HIMP_rallyAccording to Global Meat News, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee has adopted an amendment to the $19.5 billion Agriculture Appropriations bill that would finalize USDA's problematic poultry inspection plan.

The story reads:

"The poultry inspection amendment was offered by Jack Kingston (R-Ga) and passed by a voice vote with a bipartisan majority."

It's disappointing that our federal legislators continue to ignore the concerns of whistleblowers from within the USDA itself who have come out against the rule, which would hand oversight duties from federal inspectors to poultry industry workers who lack adequate whistleblower protections. It would also increase line speeds so fast that contamination cannot be sufficiently monitored.

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Food Safety Modernization Act Whistleblower Case Filed in Federal Court

In a complaint filed in federal court, a former employee of Brothers International Food Corporation alleges the New York-based food and beverage company violated FDA's Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) whistleblower provision.

Colin Chase, former Director of eCommerce at Brothers' Rochester, New York headquarters, was terminated in July 2012 after raising safety and health concerns regarding the redating and sale of expired food products, such as Potato Crisps and Fruit Crisps (including the "Disney" line of fruit crisps marketed to toddlers), as well as the sale of improperly rehydrated Fuji Apple Crisps.

According to the complaint, when Chase alerted management to a batch of expired potato crisps that were being sold online, he was told that their sale would stop until "new expiration dates" were put on and to tell customers that the reason for the redating was that it had originally been dated for sale in Europe, even though it was known that Brothers' products were not being sold in Europe at that time.

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