Mad Cow DiseaseIn 2008, an undercover investigation led by the Humane Society led to the largest beef recall in history -- removing meat that may have been tainted with mad cow disease from school cafeterias around the country.

Now there's a business-backed movement afoot seeking to prohibit investigations like these.

The so-called "ag-gag" laws are designed to prevent anyone other than regulators or law enforcement officers from investigating dangerous or illegal agricultural practices that lead to mad cow disease, salmonella or Listeria poisoning, and other food-borne illnesses.

Ag-gag laws have been proposed by politicians in Arkansas, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Wyoming. And Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah already have such laws in place.

Why should this concern consumers? Due to funding limitations, regulators are only able to inspect a small percentage of the food we consume. As a result, we rely a great deal on journalists and activists to conduct additional investigations that prevent dangerous food from making it to market.

"Downer" Cows Dragged to Slaughter and Served to Children

We don't have to look far to see how laws discouraging undercover investigation can limit consumer access to food safety information.

The 2008 massive beef recall came about from a Humane Society undercover investigation that provided a video of "downer" cows -- animals too weak or sick to walk -- being dragged to slaughter at Hallmark Meat, a supplier to the National School Lunch Program. This led to a recall because a cow's inability to stand or walk is a possible indicator of mad cow disease.

Last year, activist group Compassion Over Killing released disturbing video footage from another National School Lunch Program supplier, Central Valley Meat. It shows cows, before slaughter, covered in feces, writhing on the ground in blood, and projectile-vomiting from the stress of being repeatedly struck by a bolt gun (a weapon that pierces the skull to stun or "euthanize" the animals).

Before the footage was released, Central Valley Meat also served as a supplier for McDonald's (MCD) and Costco (COST). Both have since cut ties with the company.

Keeping You in the Dark

Let's take a look at how 2013's ag-gag bills may undermine investigations that expose unsafe and inhumane agricultural practices.
  • Arkansas' SB 13 proposes outlawing animal investigations conducted by anyone other than a certified law enforcement officer, thus prohibiting journalists and activists from investigating possible food safety violations regulators may have missed.
  • Arkansas' SB 14, would make it illegal for whistleblowers or undercover investigators to gather photographic or recorded sound evidence of illegal or unsafe agricultural practices with the intention to "cause harm to the livestock or poultry operation." In other words, the proposed law would prohibit whistleblowers from releasing information that would make a company look bad and drive away customers.
  • Indiana's SB 373 and Wyoming's HB 0126 would also prevent whistleblowers from exposing food safety issues by making it illegal to take video or pictures without written consent of the property owner or representative of the property owner.
  • Nebraska's LB 204 proposes making it illegal for journalists and activists to pose as employees to conduct undercover investigations. It suggests prohibiting job candidates from misrepresenting themselves during the hiring process when they have an intention of damaging or interfering with the operations of the business. Strikingly, the bill proposes felony charges in cases where the "violation" results in "economic damage" of $10,000 or more. That means that undercover employees who reveal safety issues costing a company more than $10,000 in lost sales could face devastating legal penalties.
  • New Hampshire's HB 110 simply calls for requiring people with evidence of animal cruelty to turn it over to law enforcement. While nothing in the bill prohibits outside investigation of animal cruelty, some worry that this law would undermine investigations into animal cruelty by forcing journalists and activists to reveal their sources too early in the investigation.
Agricultural business advocates might argue that these undercover investigations unfairly put businesses' reputations at risk by allowing individuals who aren't trained to evaluate agricultural safety practices to gather and disperse misleading information, and that these ag-gag laws simply protect the ability of businesses to guard their reputations from unfair accusations.

After reviewing the behavior prohibited by the proposed ag-gag laws, are you concerned about their potential to undermine consumer safety? Or do you think they represent a legitimate corporate attempt to protect agricultural businesses against potential economic harm? Chime in below.

Motley Fool Contributor M. Joy Hayes, Ph.D., is the Principal at ethics consulting firm Courageous Ethics. She owns shares of McDonald's. Follow @JoyofEthics on Twitter. The Motley Fool recommends Costco Wholesale and McDonald's. The Motley Fool owns shares of Costco Wholesale and McDonald's.



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29 Comments

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avcaman

i think politicians should have only one term that way more people would have a chance at a foney boloney job........and all money the politicians rec as bribes go into the social security fund that we were told didn't
exist when the government sucked money from it to make their uncontrolled spending look better

February 18 2013 at 9:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jonclong

Well, you can thank all the PETA nut jobs and other extremists for causing this. Their efforts to infiltrate ag sites and "spin" their filming, along with damage and sabotage of ag operations was the reason for the law changes. I've worked on both family farm and commercial ag sites. On the family farm, you don't abuse the animals, because you are dependent on them for your living. On the commercial sites I've worked at, you don't abuse the animals because it will get you fired. I know abuses happen, just like in hospitals, nursing homes, schools, etc. If you became aware of one of those issues, would you want a biased journalist investigating, or would you want competent law enforcement?

February 14 2013 at 8:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Terry

Who wrote these biils? Which politicans and companies are supporting them? Are there political contrubutions to the politicans / political parties who are supporting these bills from companies who would benifit from the passage of these bills?
Politicans are elected, remember those who are for these bills at election time. Do you own stock in these companies? Do you purchase their products? Write your elected officals expressing your views. Follow the money

February 14 2013 at 4:40 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
advtim2000

I would NEVER eat chicken that comes from Arkansas. filthy

February 14 2013 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
jchemengr

A constitutional non-starter. If politicians could ban private investigations, they would have started by protecting themselves.

February 14 2013 at 1:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
yayabeanes

IMO, I highly doubt this will stop hard core activists from exposing greedy cash ***** corporations who sell tainted, poisonous and deadly products for consumption or personal use.

February 14 2013 at 1:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
newportmb74

This, among many other things today, is just going to be a modern day version of Upton Sinclairs" "The Jungle", which I suggest everone stop watching "reality" TV shows, and take time to read. From the filthy food, to corrupt politicos, worker abuses etc, this 1906 read, is still true today.

February 14 2013 at 12:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
shortprint26

The law keeps giving us reasons not to take it seriously...

February 14 2013 at 12:10 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
instsol

This further proves that our elected officials are only interested in protecting corporate interests rather than the public. Money is the sole driving force that corrupts our officials. Any government official that backs these proposed laws are simply crooks, already in the pockets of the big corporations. It's our duty to police the corrupt politicians that propose and enact these laws that protect the guilty. I only hope that the media gets the word out and exposes those corrupt politicians. It should be illegal to enact laws that hide inhumane treatment of animals and expose the public to tainted products. Where are our backers of ethics? I hope the press names those that propose these laws that protect the guilty and attempt to silence the press.

February 14 2013 at 11:36 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
drbobdez

It is always a bit dispiriting that no matter what the subject a host of comments turn it to "a crisis of creeping liberalism" and take a shot at the administration and Democratic party. Yesterday, the acquisition of NBC by Comcast was seen as an opportunity to squelch MSNBC rather than a pretty good transaction between Comcast and GE. So, before the conversation gets too-wingnut on this issue, it bears noting that of the eleven states noted in the article above, only four have Democrat Governors and all have Republican Legislatures. Keeping the nation's food supply safe should not be a partisan political issue . . . nor a "states rights" issue.

February 14 2013 at 11:26 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply