Agribusiness is the reason we can’t have nice things.
The same industry that recently terrified consumers by including pink slime (or, euphemistically, “boneless lean beef trimmings”) in 70% of supermarket ground beef is now responsible for a new Iowa law that makes it a crime to misrepresent yourself in order to get a job at a farm. It had already been a crime in Iowa to record audio or video at a farm without the owner’s permission, but now that the organization Mercy for Animals has inconveniently shot footage of atrocious animal abuse at the Iowa egg farm Sparboe, lawmakers are upping the ante.
Oops, did I say lawmakers? I meant the lobbyists that have them on puppet strings.
One might wonder why it would even be necessary to pretend to be someone else in order to get a job at a farm, or to film without the owner’s permission. Well, it’s because they won’t let you do it otherwise. All the books I’ve read about factory farming, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the companion book to Food, Inc., mention how difficult it is to obtain access to these farms.
Even assuming that a journalist manages to enter the premises without hiding his/her identity or intentions, many states have laws that make it extremely dangerous to criticize agribusiness. Consider this passage from Fast Food Nation:
Having centralized American agriculture, the large agribusiness firms are now attempting, like Soviet commissars, to stifle criticism of their policies. Over the past decade, “veggie libel laws” backed by agribusiness have been passed in thirteen states. The laws make it illegal to criticize agricultural commodities in a matter inconsistent with “reasonable” scientific evidence. The whole concept of “veggie libel” is probably unconstitutional; nevertheless, these laws remain on the books. Oprah Winfrey, among others, has been sued for making disparaging remarks about food. In Texas, a man was sued by a sod company for criticizing the quality of its lawns. … In Colorado, violating the veggie libel law is now a criminal, not a civil, offense. Criticizing the Greeley slaughterhouse could put you behind bars. (pg. 266-67)
So, it’s not very surprising that activists now have to go undercover to tell the truth about what’s going on inside factory farms.
Iowa’s new law wouldn’t be so bad if these films didn’t have as huge an impact as they do. Four of Sparboe’s biggest clients–Target, McDonald’s, Sam’s Club, and Supervalu–have stopped doing business with the farm since seeing video that Mercy for Animals created. Similar results came about for other farms due to whistleblowing films (see the fifth paragraph of this article for some examples).
Ag-gag laws like Iowa’s are now pending in seven other states, including Illinois, where I attend school and where I will soon be writing to my district’s state representatives.
One may debate the importance of animal welfare (well, I wouldn’t debate it, but many people would), but here’s something that most Americans probably consider undebatable: consumers deserve to know the truth about the products they buy so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. Companies that cannot make products that consumers want to buy should either change their business model or go out of business.
But laws that protect agribusiness from public scrutiny turn this model upside down. Now industrial farms can produce food (or, I should say, “food”) using whichever methods are cheapest and easiest for them, regardless of what consumers would actually buy if they knew the truth.
Of course, the notion of companies hiding their manufacturing methods from the public in order to cut costs without sacrificing consumer loyalty is neither new nor limited to the agriculture industry. Controversies over conditions at iPhone factories and the safety of pharmaceuticals, for instance, are old news by now.
A free market isn’t really free if basic information about products is kept from consumers. Most Americans probably wouldn’t want to eat eggs that come from hens whose beaks are burned off to keep them from pecking each other in overcrowded, filthy cages. They probably wouldn’t want to eat beef from cows that were literally bulldozed into the slaughterhouse because they were too sick to walk.
The legislators who pass laws allowing for these flagrant abuses to be kept secret from the American public ought to remember who they were elected to serve.
Here’s a hint: it’s not the agribusinesses.
Update (3/15/12): Et tu, Utah?