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The AgGag Story, Beautifully Done

June 25, 2013

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When you are a journalist, you sometimes see a story and think: “I wish I had written that.” It is the highest praise for another writer’s work, and that was exactly my reaction when I read Ted Genoways powerful and devastating investigation of the AgGag phenomenon:

Using a legal cudgel to go after critics wasn’t entirely a new tactic for agribusiness. PETA first began undercover investigations around 1981—getting video of rhesus monkeys being vivisected in a Maryland medical research lab by posing as employees—and a few legislatures responded by enacting laws to protect animal research from exposés. (Only Kansas had the foresight to expand its law to cover “livestock and domestic animals.”) Then, in 1992, when two ABC PrimeTime Live reporters shot undercover video of Food Lion workers in the Carolinas repackaging spoiled meat, Food Lion sued—not for libel, since the tapes spoke for themselves, but for fraud and trespass, because the reporters had submitted false information on their job applications. (A jury awarded $5.5 million, but an appeals court reduced it to just $2.) In 1996, at the height of the mad cow scare, the Texas Beef Group launched a two-year lawsuit against Oprah Winfreyover an episode that questioned the safety of hamburger. Recently, not only has the rhetoric heated up, but so has the coordinated legislative effort. Deeply invested in industrywide methods that a growing number of consumers find distasteful or even cruel, agribusiness has united in making sure that prying eyes literally don’t see how the sausage is made.

“If you think this is an animal welfare issue, you have missed the mark,” said Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, who served as a representative for the whistleblowers who tipped off ABC in the Food Lion case. “This is a bigger, broader issue.” She likened activist videos to airplane black-box recorders—evidence for investigators to deconstruct and find wrongdoing. Ag gag laws, she said, don’t just interfere with workers blowing the whistle on animal abuse. “You are also stopping environmental whistleblowing; you are also stopping workers’ rights whistleblowing.” In short, “you have given power to the industry to completely self-regulate.” That should “scare the pants off” consumers concerned about where their food comes from. “It’s the consumer’s right to know, but also the employee’s right to tell. You gotta have both.”

Exactly. This is a story about animal welfare AND the first Amendment, AND democracy itself. And along the way it makes clear that abuse is both rampant and the inevitable consequence of the public lust for abundant and cheap meat.

It is hard to read this story and not come to a simple conclusion: the only ethical choice is to stop eating meat.

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