Despite efforts to prevent Iowa's "Ag Gag" legislation, including a FIC op-ed that appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette last week, Gov. Terry Branstad signed the bill into law on Friday.
This is disconcerting news, however unsurprising (as the Associated Press points out) given Branstad's "strong ties to the state's agricultural industry." Iowa is a big player in the food industry as the nation's leading pork and egg producer, and this bill will make it even more difficult for whistleblowers to shine a light on unsafe practices that threaten citizens.
Unlike pending Ag Gag bills in other states, Iowa's bill removed specific language restricting undercover video (the "final arbiter of truth" for whistleblowers) due to concerns it could violate free speech protections. But, as FIC explains, the provision that penalizes workers who gain access to farm facilities by false pretenses or with the intent to "commit an act not authorized by the owner" is clearly directed at individuals who utilize video to expose abuse and would have a chilling effect on industry whistleblowers.
Even the industry-backed Center for Food Integrity (not to be confused with FIC) didn't think Iowa's Ag Gag legislation was the right way to go (despite the fact some of its members, including Monsanto and the Iowa Farm Bureau, lobbied in favor of the bill).
Undercover video remains under threat in several other states where Ag Gag bills explicitly forbid media recording at food facilities without the owner's permission. Utah's bill was recently approved in the House and is now awaiting debate in the Senate. FIC Director Amanda Hitt authored an op-ed that was published in the Salt Lake Tribune yesterday, explaining how Utah's Ag Gag bill silences whistleblowers and poses a threat to public health:
This isn’t theoretical. Food whistleblowers make real differences with video. In 2010, the allegations of my client, U.S. Department of Agriculture public health veterinarian Dr. Dean Wyatt, were validated when a nonprofit investigator recorded countless violations and threats at a derelict slaughterhouse. For years prior to filming, Wyatt repeatedly cited two offending slaughterhouses, in Vermont and Oklahoma, for their actions, but complaints went ignored and he was the target of retaliation.
Imagine if undercover videographers were criminalized at all food-related businesses. The 1990s scandal involving grocery store chain Food Lion might never have emerged. Workers’ allegations — store employees’ grinding of expired meat into sausage, and slapping tomato sauce on expired chicken for resale — were proven because of a media outlet’s undercover video exposé.
As past GAP clients can attest, undercover video is a vital tool for proving allegations of industry wrongdoing and vindicating whistleblowers who have faced retaliation for simply doing the right thing.
Supporters of Ag Gag legislation evidently want the public perception of food integrity – without any of the transparency needed to deserve it.
FIC continues to monitor these misguided bills, with the fight for accountability in the food supply nowhere near over.
Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.