To Watch in 2014: Ag-Gag Bills Pose Problems for the Public’s Right to Know

By Rosanna Cavanagh

cavanaghAs we ring in the New Year without a new farm bill, we put off until next year the resolution of an important right-to-know issue of significant public concern. If you eat, live near a farm, or care about animals, this bill should concern you, and so, it concerns us all.

Last month, NEFAC joined with National Freedom of Information Coalition and 44 other organizations to raise the alarm against certain proposed provisions which would exempt from disclosure basic information about agricultural and livestock operations, including information that individuals living or sharing  a waterway with “concentrated animal feeding operations” (or CAFOs) urgently need to protect and advocate for their environment and the health of members of their communities. These “CAFOs” are otherwise known as factory farms, where animals are mass produced in a small area, and so fed antibiotics to prevent widespread bacterial infection. Such use of antibiotics in CAFOs lead to the accumulation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their waste products which advocacy groups posit will pass into the neighboring waterways, posing health threats to surrounding communities. This may be the motivation for the provisions of the farm bill which would require the EPA to withhold basic location and contact information about agricultural and livestock operations. H.R. 2642 (known as the Farm Bill) is currently listed on the congressional budget website with the status of “resolving differences.”The farm bill on the national level is only part of the puzzle with regard to the efforts by some members of the agricultural industry to shroud with secrecy what goes on behind closed doors. At the state level, bills have popped up in more than 10 states in 2013, including New Hampshire and Vermont. While these efforts have met with steep resistance this year leading to defeats to bills in 11 states, we can be most certain the industry has not yet given up on these attempts to shut the critical eyes of journalists and watch dog organizations on the sometimes inhumane or downright disgusting practices that take place at the sites of the worst offenders.

According to Kenneth Bunting, of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, the ”so-called ‘Ag-gag’  provisions that have found their way into numerous states’ statutes, and which hopefully will be stricken from the federal Farm Bill if Congress ever gets around to doing its job, are overreaching bad ideas aimed at hiding vital  health and safety information from the public. The powerful Agri-business interests pushing these do not have family-farm privacy or any other public interest at heart.”

Staff Attorney at the Vermont ACLU, Dan Barrett, wrote in a letter to the editor of the Burlington Free Press that “FOIA already has strong personal privacy protections for individuals that protects farmers and ranchers from having their intimate details made public. There is not need to extend personal privacy to the business and commercial aspects of farms, particularly where reduced access to information will leave us all in the dark about changes to our environment.”

We must only remember muckraker Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the exposé on the Chicago meatpacking industry, to recall what is at stake with regards to our food consumption. Sinclair said of his work that he “aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” Perhaps we will find the same is true of such efforts by groups like the “Humane Society of the Unites States” and “Mercy for Animals” who work with undercover journalists that seek jobs at animal agriculture facilities and secretly document animal cruelty and unsafe food practices. Perhaps this is why the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found in a 2012 poll that 71 percent of the American public “support undercover investigative efforts by animal welfare organizations” to document and criticize the practices of the offending agricultural and livestock businesses without adequate controls.

Let’s all stay tuned in 2014 to see what will come next.

Rose is executive director of NEFAC.

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