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.
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.
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.