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'Ag Gag' Bills Unduly Restrict Free Speech

Ashley Yang |
March 5, 2013 | 10:22 p.m. PST


This environment is where our chicken products really come from. (Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, Creative Commons)
This environment is where our chicken products really come from. (Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, Creative Commons)
For a country that takes its First Amendment rights so seriously, it seems that we have been weighing the importance of certain freedoms guaranteed to us more than others. The freedoms of speech and of the press should be just as important as freedom of religion...right?

Not according to the government, federal or state. Not only did the Supreme Court just uphold a law allowing national security agencies to monitor international phone calls and emails at will, multiple state legislatures in which the majority of agricultural-industrial operations are located are introducing a slew of “ag gag” bills that would criminalize taking photos and video within the facilities without permission from the owners. Iowa first started this trend by making it illegal to seek employment at a factory “under false pretenses,” most likely as a response to a reporter who recorded factory farm conditions with a pinhole camera.

These laws have one clear motive: to silence those who dare to reveal the truly abysmal conditions under which our food is produced. After viewing the documentary "Food, Inc," which detailed the consequences of the transformation of food production into a billion dollar industry, as well as the detrimental effects on the public of the lack of effective regulation of the food industry, I came close to becoming a vegetarian. Not only is the treatment of the animals in these ag-industry facilities appalling, but the food safety regulations and employee protections that are skirted and ignored in the production process pose a real danger to the public.

The rising costs of industrialized agriculture combined with government incentives to increase the food supply have effectively replaced the quaint family farm with what can only be called “food factories.” In effect, a few large corporations have a complete monopoly over every step of the production of the country’s food supply, from growing the crops or birthing the animals to packaging them and placing them in the supermarket for our consumption. Although we would like to believe that these companies adhere to ethical business practices, prior exposés have revealed that the public has been repeatedly victimized by the companies' quest to maximize profit and maintain control over the production process while minimizing government regulation.

There is nothing wrong with the concept of privatized, large-scale food production. In theory, this makes the industry more efficient and more attentive to the public’s desires and tastes. But the government must be present every step of the way to ensure that agribusinesses are also attentive to production concerns that do not directly affect their profits; namely, public health and public safety. At the beginning of industrialization, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture and legislators all did their part in keeping corporations responsible for putting clean, healthy and ethically produced food on the shelves. But now, as the powerful agribusiness lobby retains and strengthens its grip on Washington, the FDA has seen its budget reduced more and more. Congress is passing fewer regulatory laws on food production, and a USDA inspector even had this job threatened for reporting violations in a slaughterhouse in California. 

The lobbies have been successful at leveraging independence from government interference in their practices. But all this has resulted in for the public is food recalls, disease outbreaks and even deaths from consuming contaminated food, and food deemed otherwise unsafe for human consumption. We know the reasons behind these disasters because journalists and whistleblowers have investigated and stepped forward with information of illicit and ethically corrupt practices that endanger our food supply. If these "ag gag" bills are successful in Midwest state legislatures, the food industry will be given a legal cloak to conceal the truth about the conditions under which our food is produced, and thereby further infringe upon the public’s right to be informed consumers of life-sustaining products. Why fight so hard to legislate “privacy protections” if you have nothing to hide?

Reach Contributor Ashley Yang here.



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