Criminalizing Whistleblowing: Big Ag Wins at Consumers’ Expense

April 13, 2012

On March 2, 2012, Iowa’s Governor Branstad signed House File 589 into law, creating a new crime of “agricultural production facility fraud.”  Utah passed a similar “agricultural operations interference” law on March 20, 2012.  While their names make it sound like these laws target unscrupulous food manufacturers for the benefit of consumers, they are in fact quite the opposite.  These are the latest “Ag Gag” laws which protect the $1 trillion agricultural industry from whistleblowers, investigative journalists and animal rights activists who take jobs at factory farms, slaughterhouses, and food processing plants to document and expose potential food safety violations and animal abuse.   But if there is nothing to hide from consumers, then why did the agricultural industry lobby so hard for these laws which allow them to essentially hide everything?

The Iowa law criminalizes false statements made to obtain access or employment at an animal facility or crop operation property in the state, and further criminalizes those who conspire to commit or “harbors, aids, or conceals the identity” of anyone who has committed such a fraud.  Iowa companies can screen out potential whistleblowers (or those unwilling to face criminal charges) by simply asking on job applications: “are you affiliated with any news organization, food safety, or other animal protection group?”   Utah’s Ag Gag law goes one step farther, also prohibiting photography of farm animals or operations without permission or under false pretenses. [1]

At their core, these laws seek to silence those who witness serious problems occurring behind closed doors, while protecting the huge profit-focused businesses allowing these practices to occur in the first place.  Putting aside how one feels about the animal welfare, public health,  and environmental concerns these undercover workers often seek to expose, these Ag Gag laws hurt us all by giving big business even more power and autonomy at the consumers’ expense.

Also problematic is the chilling effect these broadly written Ag Gag laws will undoubtedly cause because of the criminal liability they impose.  Imagine an employee working at a slaughterhouse who has been there for years and never intended to become a whistleblower.   The employee notices sick animals being slaughtered and put into the food chain, and after complaining to management he sees that the company has done nothing to stop this from happening.  The only way to prove that this is happening is to videotape it to show it to the FDA or other local regulators.  This employee may be saving thousands from an e-coli outbreak (or something even worse), but in Utah he’s a criminal.  And in Iowa, if charges are filed, he’ll be saddled with legal fees and will have to establish that he didn’t take the job with the intention of becoming a whistleblower to avoid a conviction.  Any employee witnessing these problems occurring will be reticent to tell authorities about it, much less document its occurrence.  Consumers (and animals/the environment/workers) will suffer while the industry profits.

Senator Joe Seng (D-Davenport), chairman of the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee and a proponent of the bill, said it was designed to provide protections for livestock producers who make large financial investments and are concerned about exposure to disease and other problems associated with unauthorized people accessing their private property under false pretenses.   It’s clear that his first priority is protecting the companies’ profits and avoiding the embarrassment and outrage videos documenting infractions can cause, and he’s happy to silence citizens and threaten them with criminal charges to accomplish this.

Moreover, that he expressed concern that these undercover investigators may spread disease is tinged with irony, since the country’s largest outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis in 2010 stemmed from eggs produced by two Iowa companies, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms.[2]  After-the-fact investigative reports released by the FDA noted numerous problems at both companies that likely caused the outbreak.  Perhaps if undercover investigators had blown the whistle earlier, the outbreak could have been prevented.

Because the FDA simply can’t be on every farm and in every food producing establishment across the country, it often only steps in once a problem has already occurred. Just as in any other industry where quality and safety can easily be compromised in favor of profits, these whistleblowers serve a vital role in protecting America’s food supply and ensuring the welfare of its animals, and they have achieved significant results.  For example:

  • In 2008, a Humane Society of the United States investigation into a California slaughterhouse uncovered sick and crippled cows being slaughtered and sold as human food (including to school programs across the country).  This led to the largest beef recall in the United States (143 million pounds) and the closure of the slaughterhouse in question.
  • Undercover video taken at Sparboe Farms (another egg producer with facilities in Iowa) documented extreme animal mistreatment which also compromised the safety of the eggs produced there.  The FDA sent Sparboe Farms a warning letter after finding numerous safety infractions, and this exposure prompted McDonald’s and Target to drop the egg producer.  One can imagine that losing these two customers would send a strong message to the owners of other big ag companies that mistreatment and safety violations simply will not be tolerated.
  • Another Humane Society investigation in Florida showed barbaric practices being used to slaughter veal calves.  This led to the state passing humane slaughter and euthanasia laws.
  • Undercover video from a Butterball turkey facility in North Carolina documenting “repeated violations” of animal cruelty over the span of only 3 weeks led to the arrest of seven individuals (charges are still pending).

Fortunately, Ag Gag laws have failed in several other states, including high-agriculture ones like Illinois and Indiana.  The food production industry is one of the largest and most powerful in America, and allowing it to operate without worrying that private citizens are watching and documenting serious infractions is yet another victory for the powerful at the consumers’ expense.


Photo Credit: Joost J. Bakkar


[1] In its original draft, Iowa’s House File 589 also sought to prohibit the same conduct, but the bill was amended when the Iowa Attorney General warned that it would violate First Amendment rights.  Similar laws are working their way through the Minnesota, New York, and other states’ legislatures while they have been rejected by lawmakers in other states including Illinois, Florida, and Indiana.

[2]   Almost 2,000 people across the country became ill from exposure to the salmonella and a half a billion eggs were recalled.

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