Ag Gag: Safeguarding Industry Secrets by Punishing the Messenger

AgGagYoutubeCaption1 Numerous problems in the U.S. food supply, from E. coli outbreaks to animal abuse to pink slime, are precisely why the country’s lawmakers should be making it easier – not more challenging – for the truth about industry practices to reach the public. Brave whistleblowers can help expose problems more quickly and even prevent potential illness or death.

Without adequate whistleblower protection, the use of undercover video, audio, and photographs to promote transparency in our food system has proved essential. But the practice has come under attack in proposed legislation referred to as "Ag Gag" bills – which target whistleblowers rather than the individuals committing the wrongdoing. These various pieces of legislation essentially criminalize the act of taking video in animal and other agricultural facilities.

Groups who have lobbied in favor of Ag Gag include the states' big agriculture industry associations, as well as biotechnology behemoths like Monsanto and DuPont, whose genetically modified crop operations would be affected. These groups’ profits are at stake if the unsightly truths about agricultural facilities are exposed. 

The bills are a clear attempt by agribusiness to intimidate whistleblowers while at the same time dismantling the food regulatory apparatus. When that happens, internal truth-telling voices are our country's last resort to keep the public informed when violations and threats to food integrity arise.

GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign has been closely monitioring Ag Gag bills and working with coalition partners to fight the legislation. Sign FIC's petition to stop Ag Gag! FIC also launched a video campaign called "Ag Gag Undercover" in order to raise awareness about the controversial legislation. You can read all of FIC's blog coverage of Ag Gag here.

Legislative History

2010-2011 Legislative Session

In early 2011, Ag Gag bills were introduced in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and New York that would have criminalized visual documentation of animal abuse, or other wrongdoing, in agricultural facilities without the owner's permission. However, they either stalled or failed to pass their respective state legislative sessions (ending in June 2011).

2011-2012 Legislative Session

The proposed Ag Gag bills that died in the previous session were once again reintroduced and joined by several new states to include a list of 10 anti-whistleblower bills: Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, Tennessee and Utah. One by one, each bill was tabled or failed to pass before the end of the session due to concerns raised by FIC and our coalition partners, with the exception of Iowa and Utah

To address concerns about free speech violations, lawmakers in Iowa changed the bill's language, removing any mention of video footage and replacing it with a provision that penalized individuals who apply for agricultural jobs under false pretenses. Nevertheless, the new provision continues to serve as a scare tactic – still clearly aimed at whistleblowers who utilize undercover video. The legislation is written so that workers face serious charges if they gain access “with the intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner,” language that prevents even established, long-term employees from speaking up if they witness serious violations on company property. Utah kept its language relating to video, but also included the broadly defined false pretense provision. FIC Director Amanda Hitt authored twono_video op-eds – one in Iowa's Cedar Rapids Gazette and another in Utah's Salt Lake Tribune – on why those respective state Ag Gag bills pose a threat to public health. Despite these raised concerns, both bills were signed into law in March 2012.

Missouri already has an existing law that prohibits undercover investigation of animal facilities. The bill introduced in 2012 would have expanded regulations to cover all agricultural facilities. The State House passed the bill, but the Senate did not reach a vote before the legislative session ended. However, Congress did pass an omnibus agriculture law that requires anyone with pictures or video of animal abuse to share them with law enforcement within 24 hours. The individuals do not have to give up the original copies.

The proposed Ag Gag bills in other states failed to pass.

2012-2013 Legislative Session

Eleven states introduced Ag Gag legislation in 2013, including Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Wyoming. The bills varied in language, but several included mandatory reporting provisions, such as New Hampshire's proposed legislation requiring whistleblowers to report animal abuse and turn over videotapes and other documentation within 24 hours or face prosecution. These provisions, which the sponsors claimed solve the problem of silencing would-be whistleblowers, actually make it easier for companies to isolate those who speak up and retaliate against them. FIC blogged about the numerous reasons mandatory reporting provisions are problematic.

All 11 bills failed to pass.

Why is Undercover Video Essential?

When it comes to bringing horrific truths to the public eye, undercover footage and images are often an effective outlet for whistleblowers who otherwise risk retaliation when speaking up. Going through "proper channels" to report abuse often results in supervisors intimidating those employees who have made complaints to keep quiet.

Statements by Ag Gag bill sponsors imply that “real” whistleblowers have a safe and effectual means for speaking up, when history shows that's often not the case.

Utah State Senator Dave Hinkins said the amendments in Utah’s Ag Gag bill “protect legitimate employees who film safety violations.” Industry groups backing Iowa’s law also said the new measures “don’t tamper with whistleblowing laws.” However, these are misguided statements that don’t take into account the fact that workers who raise concerns to their supervisors or other proper officials are routinely retaliated against. Video is often the only way to prove allegations.

Case Studies

Since 1980, GAP has worked with whistleblowers who, with undercover footage, were able to expose atrocious conditions that violated food integrity, and create change that benefited animals, workers and consumers.

Past exposés include:

Chicken "Fecal Soup": USDA grader Hobart Bartley, who was transferred and demoted in 1985 after repeatedly warning the agency of unsanitary conditions at a Missouri poultry plant, came to GAP and was able to expose the routine practice of soaking thousands of chicken carcasses in a giant "chiller" (with dried blood, feces and hair floating in along with the dead birds) in order to increase their selling weight, on CBS "60 Minutes."

Food Lion: Food Lion grocery chain employees began to report to GAP shocking abuses of food safety standards in the early 1990s, such as grinding expired meat into sausage, washing off meat that was greenish and slimy, soaking poultry in bleach to conceal spoilage, and putting tomato sauce on expired chicken and selling the new product at a higher price. GAP took these concerns to ABC, which aired a national exposé on the confirmed allegations.CAFO_hogs

Dean Wyatt: Undercover footage taken by the Humane Society of the United States, and released in fall 2009, finally vindicated the late USDA Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Dean Wyatt, who consistently complained of animal welfare violations at two processing plants in Vermont and Oklahoma. Before the video's release, Wyatt lacked support from agency supervisors and was instead punished for doing his job.

History clearly shows that when workers do make complaints, they are often ignored or face job transfers, demotions, and other retaliatory actions that effectively discourage many from coming forward. Without the help of media and whistleblowers, these gross practices would go unchanged.

Media Coverage

6/17/2013 Mother Jones – Gagged by Big Ag

4/15/2013 New York Times – Silencing Witnesses to Animal Abuse

4/11/2013 NPR – A Legal Twist in the Effort to Ban Cameras from Livestock Plants

3/17/2013 Associated Press – Bills Seek End to Farm Animal Abuse Videos

3/15/2013 ABC News – 'Ag Gag': More States Move to Ban Hidden Cameras on Farms

3/5/2013 Indianapolis Star – Game Show Host Bob Barker Opposes Bill That Targets Whistleblower Videos

3/1/2013 NPR – States Consider So-Called Ag Gag Bills

3/1/2013 Religion News Service – U.S. Ag Gag Laws "Sinister" Say Leading Academics

2/5/2013 Huffington Post – Ag Gag 2013: A Continued Attempt to Silence Whistleblowers

5/1/2012 Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press - Efforts to Restrict Recordings of Animal Abuse Could Impede Newsgathering

4/1/2012 Heritage Radio - Ag Gag Laws

3/9/2012 Mother Jones - Utah Follows Iowa in Factory Farm Video Ban

3/7/2012 Associated Press - Filming on Farms Banned by Proposed Utah Law

3/7/2012 ABC 4 News (KTVX) - Gagging Over Utah's Ag-Gag Bill

4/6/2011 Grist Magazine - Monsanto Cash Helped Fund Bill to Stifle Whistleblowers in Iowa

3/18/2011 Iowa Independent - Nine Iowa House Dems Join with GOP to Criminalize Whistleblowers