The old saw has it that what we don’t know won’t hurt us, but ignorance is surely not bliss when it comes to how our food is brought to our tables, considering that about 3,000 Americans die each year from food-borne illnesses and an additional 48 million get sick as a result of consuming tainted food.
A bill pending in Harrisburg, however, would take away a vital weapon in the arsenal of those seeking to expose unsafe or cruel conditions on farms where pigs, chickens and other animals are raised. Dubbed an “ag-gag” law, it copies regulations that have either been approved or are pending in other states, and would prohibit the photographing or the audio and video recording of anything that happens on a farm without the permission of the owner. Proponents say the law would protect farmers, both of the family and industrial varieties, and that consumers are already protected thanks to a regimen of inspection that farms are subject to.
It also would probably have the added benefit of sticking it to those pesky vegan types who, according to some, worry more about the tender sensibilities of cows or sows as they are led to slaughter than the nutritional needs of their fellow humans.
But the “ag-gag” law that’s been proposed here would be detrimental to everyone who lifts a fork, and that includes those who limit their diet to vegetarian staples like tofu and falafel. It would effectively silence whistleblowers, and contradict the commonwealth’s own 1986 whistleblower law that forbids retaliation or discrimination against employees who expose wrongdoing at their place of employment. Some experts also have raised valid questions about whether it is constitutional. It’s usually a good rule of thumb that any law that seeks to hinder or halt the spread of information should be looked at with suspicion and skepticism.
And the legislation is so broadly written that it could conceivably prevent anyone from legally taking photos of horses grazing in a field by the highway, or of Amish farmers carrying out their quaint agrarian customs. Since many energy companies have set up shop on farms amid the Marcellus Shale boom, an “ag-gag” law would seemingly let oil and gas drillers off the hook when it comes to exposing environmental mishaps or other safety lapses. While the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry advocacy organization, is quick to point out that companies allow “credentialed journalists” to tour their sites, they usually know when those reporters and photographers are stopping by and are likely to be on their best behavior. Undercover video or photography can offer a more unvarnished look at what day-to-day operations are really like.
Many of the “ag-gag” laws that have been approved or are pending in some states are the product of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the “bill mill” funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, which also has spit out “model” legislation on voter identification, school privatization and “stand your ground” laws. Given their track record, it’s safe to say that the pencil chewers at ALEC aren’t fretting over the fate of the weathered farmer in his bib overalls with these bills, but corporate farms that have been putting the weathered farmer in his bib overalls out of business.
Farmers and their legislative allies who don’t want to see inhumane, unlawful or just plain stomach-churning practices exposed on YouTube, television or in their local newspapers, would be wiser to clean up their barns and farmyards, rather than going after those who seek to bring these practices to light.