On the Table

‘Ag-gag’ bills seek to limit food reporting

April 16, 2013 

Access to accurate and timely information has always been an essential ingredient for public health. Courageous journalism has long been a mechanism that ensured it.

More than 100 years ago, Upton Sinclair went undercover and worked for seven weeks in Chicago meatpacking plants. His book, “The Jungle,” described the filth in the plants, sparking a scandal that directly led to new food and drug laws and to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.

Today’s muckrakers often carry video cameras. That’s how the public found out in the 1990s that Food Lion was dipping spoiled fish and ham into bleach before selling it to you.

It’s the same way animal rights activists document cruelty at factory farms.

But a movement is underway to prevent this sort of reporting by criminalizing it and branding its reporters as terrorists. If the strategy succeeds, it will deprive you and me of information we should know.

Industry opponents to the reporting are behind the “ag-gag” bills being introduced in various forms in state legislatures around the country. The proposed legislation includes measures that would make it illegal to secretly record activities at factory farms or to apply for a job at one without revealing associations with animal rights groups.

If industry is threatened enough to push for a law that makes it a criminal offense to document what goes on, what do they have to hide?

The bills also require any recordings of wrongdoing to be turned over to law enforcement within 24 hours, a measure that would thwart documentation of ongoing animal cruelty and other criminal actions.

We’ve got our own “ag-gag” legislation under consideration in North Carolina, Senate Bill 648.

Let’s hope the N.C. General Assembly decides to support workers, journalists, whistleblowers and the public’s right to know instead of enabling companies to hide abuses.

After all, if animals are being mistreated or your food isn’t safe to eat, wouldn’t you want to know?

Livestock farms should keep this rule of thumb in mind: If you think your behavior wouldn’t look good on the front page of this newspaper or on the 6 o’clock news, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

It’s that simple.

Suzanne Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management and nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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