If lawmakers can't come to an agreement to ward off the sequester by midnight Thursday, funding for federal food safety inspections could be significantly cut. There are several reasons why that is disturbing.
The first may be the rising number of states pushing for “ag-gag” bills that protect factory livestock farms from undercover whistleblowers. Undercover videos, on several occasions, have exposed the atrocious and often unhealthy conditions livestock animals are subjected to before their slaughter.
One of the most infamous of those videos was released by the Humane Society in 2008, and ultimately triggered the largest beef recall in U.S. history. The group, which was tipped off by a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector who reportedly had his job threatened after he tried to report his findings, revealed a California slaughterhouse had been torturing and killing sick cows technically deemed “unfit for human food” by the USDA.
As a result of reports like the one from the Humane Society, ag-gag bills have been introduced in at least five states this year. The Indiana Senate this week debated a proposal to criminalize taking photos or videos inside an agricultural or industrial operation without permission, according to local media reports. Similar measures are currently up for consideration in New Hampshire, Nebraska, Wyoming and Arkansas.
Because trespassing is already illegal, opponents of the legislation charge it can only have one motive – to punish whistleblowers, investigative reporters and food safety advocates who attempt to speak out about the appalling conditions in which a majority of American meat is produced.
Although the Indiana bill’s author, Republican Sen. Travis Holdman, added a provision that exempts anyone who turns over their recordings or photos to law enforcement within 24 hours, it does not apply to individuals who shares that information with any other groups (such as media outlets, animal rights organizations or the Internet).
The food safety cuts included in the automatic budget cuts would mean up to 2,100 fewer food inspections would take place each year.
It’s particularly disconcerting because factory farms have already, in the past, been easily able to escape legal or regulatory scrutiny. For example, last year the Environmental Protection Agency abandoned an effort to require those businesses to even report basic information -- such as the number of animals they possess, how much manure is discharged (reportedly the largest source of nitrogen pollution in the country) and which facilities violate the Clean Water Act.
As ThinkProgress notes, in 2012 the agricultural industry also pressured the USDA to apologize for a “Meatless Monday” initiative, claiming the program was an “attack” on livestock agriculture.
The food safety issue doesn’t solely apply to meat, either. As seen by the excess of food recalls that have occurred in the last year alone -- spanning such disparate items as spinach, seafood and chocolate-covered marshmallows -- the USDA’s food safety staff have already missed plenty of problems at its current inspection rate. There’s no telling how much more could be overlooked when inspections are cut down.
Last March Iowa became the first state to pass an ag-gag law in more than two decades, making it illegal to seek employment in factory farms under “false pretenses." The bill passed not long after the Humane Society exposed horrific conditions in an egg farm, where birds were reportedly forced to pile atop their dead and decomposing cage mates as they laid their eggs.
Similar laws have already been enacted in Missouri, Missouri, Utah, North Dakota, Montana and Kansas.
As noted by IndyStar.com, most of these exposes have occurred "precisely because the authorities failed to do their job." Clearly, the U.S. needs to put a greater emphasis on food safety -- and that certainly won't occur anytime soon with the sequester cuts.