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. Such use of media to promote transparency in our food system has come under attack, however, in recently proposed legislation.
Florida state Senator Jim Norman (R-Tampa) introduced a bill that criminalizes those who photograph farms without written consent of the owner, making the act a first-degree felony in Florida. Animal advocacy groups have fervently criticized the bill for “comparing a potential whistleblower who might expose the realities of factory farming…with those who commit murder or armed robbery.” Rather than targeting the structures within Big Ag that lead to violations such as inhumane handling and stifle workers’ concerns regarding such violations, Senator Norman is attacking the efforts that threaten the industry’s ability to keep them in place.
The Florida Independent writes:
There are currently no mechanisms in place to monitor animal welfare on Florida’s farms, with inspections focusing on the food itself, not the conditions of the animals. Organizations such as PETA and the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida contend Norman drafted the legislation in response to a number of high-profile exposés that revealed horrific conditions on farms around the country, and worry that without whistleblowers the industry will operate with impunity.
Similarly, Iowa lawmakers are considering a bill that would make it illegal for animal rights activists to go undercover and record video of farm animal abuse. Associated Press reports:
Agriculture committees in the Iowa House and Senate have approved a bill that would prohibit such recordings and punish people who take agriculture jobs only to gain access to animals to record their treatment. Proposed penalties include fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years in prison. Votes by the full House and Senate have not yet been set.
The article quotes Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association, who said that the bill is an attempt by agribusiness “to intimidate whistleblowers and put a chill on legitimate anti-cruelty investigations” and that the industry clearly “has something to hide or it wouldn’t be going to these extreme and absurd lengths.”
Since 1980, GAP has worked with whistleblowers who, with the necessary help of undercover footage, were able to expose atrocious conditions that violated food integrity, and create change that benefited the 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, and soaking poultry in bleach to conceal spoilage. GAP took these concerns to ABC, which aired a national exposé on the confirmed allegations.
Dean Wyatt: Undercover footage taken by the Humane Society of the United States, and released in fall 2009, finally vindicated USDA Public Health Veterinarian 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 has shown that when workers do make complaints, they are often ignored or face job transfers, demotions, and other retaliatory actions that effectively (and unfortunately) discourage many from coming forward. Without the help of media and brave whistleblowers, these gross practices would go unchanged. It’s a shame that introduced legislation in states like Iowa and Florida point fingers at the individuals we rely on to keep the safety and integrity of our food supply a priority, rather than reward their efforts and encourage their voices to be heard.
Sarah Damian is Communications Manager for the Food Integrity Campaign.