Since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle over a century ago, going undercover has been one of the only ways to expose malpractice in agricultural and meat processing facilities. But legislation, so-called ‘ag-gag’ bills, has either passed or is being considered in about a dozen states and would explicitly outlaw undercover reporting as well as the publication of material gathered by undercover reporting. Brooke speaks with environmental journalist Will Potter about how these bills jeopardize the public’s health and right-to-know how their food is processed.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: The issue of individual privacy often comes before the High Court to be scrutinized and judged, but the privacy of food producers seems to be an almost inalienable right. It wasn't always the case. Over a century ago, a novelist named Upton Sinclair went undercover in the meatpacking industry, and the resulting book, The Jungle, was so disturbing it changed how the country thought about its food.
Since then, many journalists have used the same tactic to expose the hidden corners of our food supply. In 2008, an undercover investigation exposed the malpractice of a California meat processor.
[SOUND OF COWS]
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: An investigation by the Humane Society of the United States uncovers abuse of downed dairy cows, cows too sick or too injured to stand, at a California slaughterhouse. What's more, the meat is being served to children through the National School Lunch Program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That undercover investigation resulted in the largest meat recall in US history. But in recent years, a number of states, either have passed or considered laws that would effectively criminalize such reporting. Will Potter who will describe some disturbing practices in our interview, is author of Green is the New Red. He says that the so-called “ag-gag” bills have become the law in Utah, Iowa, Missouri and have been appearing, and reappearing, in almost a dozen other states.
WILL POTTER: In New Hampshire, Nebraska, Indiana, Wyoming and Arkansas, bills have already been introduced, and in North Carolina, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, they should be coming any week now. The recent spate of bills that we’ve been watching introduced around the country zero in on the criminalization of photography and videotaping of animal enterprises. Some of them are so broad that they criminalize anyone who documents from the road or from passing by what some of these facilities look like.
In addition to that, they criminalize possessing and distributing these materials.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A lot of these bills are constructed as efforts to combat terrorism, eco-terrorism or otherwise, and yet, it seems to be criminalizing information.
WILL POTTER: Absolutely. The original argument was they were needed to go after underground extremists, like the Animal Liberation Front, who are destroying property, stealing animals, breaking windows. That's been completely ignored, at this point. These are all about targeting undercover investigators, not arsonists. So, for instance, in Indiana, one of the bills that's been introduced, in the very first few lines it says that farmers have the right to engage in agricultural operations free from the threat of terrorism by unauthorized third parties, and then goes on to say that anyone who takes photographs or video images of what takes place on these farms will be targeted. Similarly, the supporters and sponsors of this legislation have been using that rhetoric, as well.
So, David Hinkins, who’s a state senator from Utah, he actually said that the people being targeted are trying to kill the animal industry and he called them “terrorists” on the Senate floor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You have FBI files, going back as far as 2003, recommending that undercover investigators be prosecuted as terrorists. The FBI and those legislators who are also using the “T word” seem to make no distinction between the activists who have caused real physical damage and those, in collecting information, might cause economic loss when wrongdoing is exposed. Is economic loss terrorism?
WILL POTTER: When I testified against a law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, back in 2006, lawmakers in the FBI and at the Justice Department all responded that this type of legislation would not be used against investigators or whistleblowers or protesters; it was only about people that are destroying property. What we've seen is that legislation and many of these other bills, focus on economic loss. And when we start talking about the loss of profits, the most significant threat to those profits in recent years has not been broken windows. It's been activists who are actually opening windows into how these operations work, by creating video footage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what are some of the things that these undercover investigators have revealed in the last few years that, if these laws are passed, they may never reveal again?
WILL POTTER: Well, around the country, these undercover investigators have revealed really horrible violence, such as in California at the Central Valley Meatpacking Plant, where a slaughterhouse worker stood on a cow’s nostrils in attempting to suffocate her, and, in North Carolina, we saw workers at a Butterball plant kicking and beating the turkeys with rods, slamming them across the floor. We’ve seen workers body slamming piglets onto a concrete floor, in order to kill them. In California, at Hallmark, it was exposed that the slaughterhouse facility was actually pulling what are called in the industry “downer cows,” which are cows that are on the ground because they’ve collapsed.
According to the industry and the USDA, these animals are not allowed to enter the food supply. What undercover investigators showed was that these animals were entering the food supply repeatedly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In response to these bills, you've heard from the Humane Society and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The activist groups, by design, are biased in favor of one position. Do you think that if journalists got into this fray, they might be able to marshal more public support against these bills?
WILL POTTER: Absolutely. Many of these bills are explicit about not just targeting the people who do the investigation but the people who distributed it, who republish it. For instance, there was an investigation a couple of years ago that at the same time the group, Mercy for Animals, was conducting the investigation ABC news was following along with it, aired the same footage, after they verified it, and it drew national attention to this and criminal charges. Under these bills, in North Carolina, for example, both the investigator and the journalist would be wrapped up together.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will, thank you very much.
WILL POTTER: Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Will Potter is the author of the book, Green is the New Red and a blog of the same name.