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Center for Food Safety Challenges Utah's "Ag Gag" Law

December 18, 2013
Center for Food Safety

Criminalization of investigations threatens food supply

Late yesterday, Center for Food Safety filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit filed by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and seven other plaintiffs over Utah’s 2012 “ag gag” law, which criminalizes undercover investigations of animal factories.  The law, Utah Code Ann. § 76-6-112, criminalizes private conduct that keeps the food supply safe in the absence of effective federal oversight. Animal welfare groups, activists, undercover investigators, journalists, scholars, and news outlets are challenging the law as a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and preempted by the federal False Claims Act.

“In the absence of effective government regulation, private, undercover investigations of the kind conducted by [the] Plaintiffs and outlawed by Utah’s ‘ag gag’ law fulfill the much-needed role of overseeing the safety of our food supply,” wrote Center for Food Safety attorney Cristina Stella.

In its brief, Center for Food Safety argued that “such investigations are currently the public’s best defense against foodborne illnesses that are known to be caused by diseased and contaminated animal products.  Government inspectors have proven time and again to be incredibly ineffective at stopping food safety violations, and in some instances purposefully turn a blind eye so that they can continue.”

Undercover investigations have shed light on numerous food safety violations over the years. The footage is frequently used to stop pathogen-laden beef, poultry, and eggs from entering the food supply.  An investigation conducted by the Humane Society of the United States in 2007 at the Hallmark/Westland slaughter plant forced USDA to acknowledge that “egregious” humane handling violations had occurred.  The investigation led Congress, USDA, and the public to question how such events could have occurred at a slaughter plant that was under inspection by USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS).   It also led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history, landmark changes to food safety regulations, criminal convictions, and civil judgments.  Such an outcome demonstrates how valuable these investigations are for keeping both industry and regulators accountable.

“The government’s continued failure to prevent these illegal practices undermines consumers’ safety and their right to know how their food is produced, which prevents them from making informed decisions that adequately protect their health.”

Each year, 3,000 consumers are killed as a result of foodborne illness.  Contaminated beef and poultry products are particularly to blame.  Given that by some estimates 99% of the meat eaten in the U.S. comes from animal factories, how food animals are raised and slaughtered in these plants has direct and serious effects on the safety of our nation’s food supply and our overall public health.

The following organizations have signed on to Center for Food Safety’s brief:
Food & Water Watch
Healthy Food Action
Public Justice