The tall tomatoes and buzz of insects make the alabaster corridors of Florida’s capital seem incredibly far away, but legislation currently being proposed and passed in a variety of states bring a startling recollection to mind of a book read once, long ago, and century past and long-gone seems to be repeating itself as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, considered a fictional expose on the meat-packing industry by some, a socialist plot by others, revisits this foodie’s booklist.
Cheryl Hanna covers the issue and succinctly sums up the Florida Bill proposed by State Senator Jim Norman (R). In short, it makes taking a photograph of any agricultural facility without the owner’s consent a felony. It matters not if you are a tourist driving down the road or an employee attempting to report gross abuses, you could go to jail for snapping the shutter on your Kodak.
Why? Well, some argue that animal rights advocates have gotten out of control, and are seeking employment simply to sabotoge and discredit industrial food operations. In an interview with the New York Times, dairy farmer Craig Lang says, “People are scared to death that they might be found in a compromising position.” He supports a similar bill happening in Iowa, and is a member of the Iowa Farm Bureau. This bill goes even further than the Florida Bill however, and makes it a felony to even possess photos taken without permission. This is in addition to the potential for slander and libel lawsuits, as well as bringing up the extremely hot topics of labor law, land law, and employment law.
This writer was asked a question that has been heavily on his mind: “What about whistleblowers?” Don’t employees have a duty and obligation to report poor treatment of animals, unsafe food-handling practices, and labor issues without having to worry about retribution? Well, if I remember correctly, that was a serious issue brought up in The Jungle, where characters were blacklisted, and is an issue that now, once again rears its ugly head. Thanks to such documentaries as “Food, Inc.,” “Super-Size Me,” “King Corn,” and “Farmaggedon,” and writers like Michael Pollan taking to the streets, the “transparency” of our food supply is becoming paramount once again, and is once again a “hot topic” being used to justify a “backlash” against photographers, documentarians, and other forms of journalism.
This foodie finds it extremely interesting that it seems to be representatives from the Republican Party, who typically claim they advocate for less government regulation, pushing this movement. Aside from Norman, Minnesota’s bill is chiefly sponsored by farmer Doug Magnus (R- Slayton), who is repeatedly cited as saying “These people who go undercover aren’t being truthful about what they’re doing.” Iowa’s bill is proposed by Rep. Annette Sweeney, who is also a rancher. Missouri’s 2002 bill was sponsored by Ken Legan. Kansas also has such a law on the books, called an “Eco-terrorism act,” and is worded so as to protect animals and property from any trespass, though it doesn’t seem to address whistle-blowing or dealing with disgruntled employees, both of which could be big concerns for any agricultural operation.
These legislative measures, and other bills like it, claim they are done to protect the producer, but the question should be asked “what is it they are trying to hide?” Shouldn’t consumers have a clear understanding of the processes that create the food they eat? Shouldn’t the consumer be allowed to make informed decisions about what type of food they want? Is it that the Slow Food Movement is eating too heavily into their market share? Are they afraid of the disparity between industrial agriculture and permaculture?
As Farmers’ Markets and organic, locally sourced food becomes more prevalent,the issue goes beyond fat content and calories, and becomes focused on qualitative nutrition, health and our relationships to the environment and society. These are factors that don’t register on the commodities lists in Wall Street. For those who are afraid of “Eco-terrorism” in the form of expose photographers, perhaps they should think about the ecology and sustainability of thier own organizations, because a truly organic, innovative and successful business doesn’t have anything to hide or to fear from open competition.
Personally, this foodie only takes photographs when he has permission, as respect is paramount to understanding food in relation to culture, and we are fortunate in the North State to have many farmers who feel the same way. I have been blessed with more invitations to visit farmers than I can keep up with, from Chaffin Family Orchards on the eastern edge of the valley and Rancho Llano Seco in the middle to Northern Napa’s Azalea Springs Farms. Soon, we hope to be able to schedule visits with Wookey Ranch and the Pedrozo family, well-known North State Cheese-makers. But will we have to worry that others taking random pictures of beautiful Northern California will be locked up for simply enjoying the magnificent landscape, and being locked up with murderers and embezzlers? Will the consumer’s “right to know,” and consequent right of choice, be thrown out the window in favor of corporations choosing what we will eat and how it wil be processed? If the battle of GMOs tells us anything, we certainly have something to think about.