Ag Gags

In 1906 Upton Sinclair called the American meat packing industry to task in his classic novel The Jungle. After reading the book, President Teddy Roosevelt declared that “radical action must be taken to do away with the efforts of arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist” and worked with Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906).

In 2010, Food, Inc. became the 21st century’s version of The Jungle. Robert Kenner’s documentary explores the ongoing changes in industrialized agriculture and the food processing industry. Like Sinclair’s novel before it, Food, Inc. takes a closer look at how corporations like Tyson and Smithfield produce the meat products most of us consume on a daily basis. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it and will likely do a more thorough review of it sometime in the near future.

It takes courage to take on these companies and speaking out is never without risk. Only one farmer – Carole Morison, a contract raiser for Perdue – agreed to talk with Kenner and his team for the film and she subsequently lost her contract. Luckily for her that was the worst they could do. That might be changing.

“Ag gag” bills are gaining popularity in many states with a large industrial agriculture presence. These bills, if passed, would make undercover reporting a criminal offense. Employees would be required to disclose ties to animal rights groups. Whistle blowers – those employees who choose to expose inhumane or illegal practices – could be charged with criminal trespass for handing over evidence of such violations to the proper authorities. In this economy, risking one’s job to do the right thing is hard enough. Add to that the threat of criminal sanctions and the food industry has created a veritable chilling effect on free speech.

I am not a vegan. I believe that animals can be raised – and slaughtered – in a respectful and humane way. I believe Wyebrook does just that. But Wyebrook also has an open-door policy. The animals are out in the open for people to observe. In fact customers are encouraged to come to the farm and see for themselves how things are managed. Which makes me wonder what the food industry is trying to hide? If they aren’t doing anything wrong, why go to such lengths to hide their practices from their consumers?

I believe that we are called to be stewards of creation. That the earth and its resources are here for us to use, but that we must use them responsibly and ethically. Animals are here for our benefit – for food, for labor, and for companionship – but our cognitive superiority doesn’t justify abuse. People who mistreat animals should be exposed and held responsible for their actions. The food industry has enough protections, both in the form of laws and in subsidies. What we need now is transparency.

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