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Factory farms would no longer be subject to the scrutiny of potential whistleblowers under the provisions of Senate Bill 373.

Senate slams shut door to public access

Whistleblower gag would remove component of food safety

There are many reasons for the dramatic increase in farmers’ markets and the rising popularity of the local-food movement. Many consumers seek out locally sourced foods because they want to know where their food comes from and how it was produced. Often this information is sought because of concerns about food safety and the ethical treatment of animals, two areas where the mainstream industrial food production system falls short.

We know about the system’s shortcomings not because of strong consumer protection laws or because errant operators choose voluntarily to clean up their act but because of undercover investigations that have exposed hidden practices. So it’s disappointing that legislation has passed the Indiana Senate that would make it a crime to expose unsafe or inhumane conditions at farms in Indiana.

Senate Bill 373, sponsored by Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, would make it a crime to expose unsafe, inhumane and unethical practices at factory farms in Indiana if an individual shares evidence with the media and public. This will make it far more difficult to monitor how our food is produced.

Indiana already has a right-to-farm law, which protects big agriculture at the expense of the environment and quality of life. Making farms exempt from public scrutiny puts the food supply and consumers in the dark and makes you wonder what the proponents of this bill, which include the Farm Bureau and big livestock producers, have to hide.

Imagine a neighborhood crime watch that made it a crime for neighbors to report criminal activity, or a factory in which workers could not report unsafe working conditions. Throughout our history we have relied on individuals to expose the wrongdoing of others.

Upton Sinclair’s book “The Jungle” exposed the awful conditions in meatpacking plants at the turn of the century and led to inspections of our nation’s food supply. The book is still taught in our schools today as a classic example of investigative journalism. In recent years, whistleblowing employees have repeatedly exposed animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, and environmental problems on industrial farms.

We cannot rely on understaffed state and federal inspectors or local law enforcement to catch factory farm operators who mistreat animals or ignore laws designed to protect food safety. The public, media and regulators rely on individuals to come forward when crimes are being committed. Making it a crime to record unsafe or unethical behavior protects wrongdoers and allows their actions to go unreported, ultimately harming the public.

SB 373 threatens the safety of our food supply and the workers who help bring that food supply to market, the conditions under which animals are raised, and the environment. The legislature should protect the public interest instead of the interests of corporate farms. They can start by voting down this legislation and preserving the public’s right to know how our food is produced.

Dave Menzer is organizer of the Downstream Project for Citizens Action Coalition Education Fund. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.