Comforting news in Florida this week: Proposed "ag-gag" legislation – criminalizing whistleblowers who take photographs or video to expose wrongdoing at farm operations – was killed in both the House and Senate.
Sound familiar? Similar bills in Florida and a few other states were introduced but then failed to pass last year. Unfortunately, they have all cropped up again, and then some (with "ag-gag" legislation now proposed in Iowa, Minnesota, New York, Nebraska and Indiana). FIC has been keeping a close eye on these bills and working with coalition groups to keep them from becoming law.
Essentially, such legislation prevents industrial animal agriculture from being held accountable for its lack of food integrity, whether it's animal cruelty, dire food safety issues or poor working conditions. When it comes to bringing horrific truths to the public eye, undercover footage and images are often the only effective outlet for whistleblowers who otherwise risk retaliation when speaking up. Going through "proper channels" to report abuse usually results in various types of intimidation by supervisors to keep complaining employees quiet, as FIC has witnessed time and again. From Food Lion grocery employees who were told to grind expired meat into sausage, to a USDA veterinarian who witnessed atrocious humane handling violations, video exposés brought the problem to light when other avenues failed.
A big hand goes to the animal rights groups who made it clear to lawmakers the costly chilling effect on whistleblowers that this legislation would have in Florida. It's clear that Big Ag interests were driving the proposal, which was thrown in along with other measures in an agriculture omnibus bill. But more props to Rep. Ben Albritton and Senator Paula Dockery, who requested striking the ag-gag language before their respective committee members voted, resulting in unanimous decisions in favor of the amended versions of the bill (Watch video of the House vote here, 47:40 – 53:35). They sent a strong message that they won't give in to attempts at keeping the public ignorant of bad industry practices.
The death of Florida's ag-gag measure will hopefully be symbolic of the fate of the others. At a time when we lack funding for food oversight agencies and are still behind in whistleblower protections, we can't afford to take away the leading means of vindication for internal truth-tellers.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.