Going undercover

And getting into trouble

By
December 18, 2013

You might’ve missed it last spring, but the investigative reporter Ted Conover has joined the crowds of folks who’ve gone undercover in the name of finding out the truth about our food.

In a piece he wrote for the May issue of Harper’s, Conover detailed how he got a job as a federal meat inspector and began inspecting meat in a Cargill plant in Nebraska.

He was motivated, in part, by the spread of so-called "ag-gag" laws, which make it a crime in several states to report on animal abuse, safety and health violations, and other infractions at factory farms, slaughterhouses, and processing plants.

“In other words,” Conover wrote, “in lieu of cleaning its house, the meat industry has elected to kill the messenger.”

Nebraska, Conover noted, does not have an ag-gag law in place, although it is considering one. “With the underlying problems at slaughterhouses left unaddressed, undercover investigations won’t stop, which means that before long some idealistic person will be charged with a felony and become a martyr to the cause of safe, humanely produced food,” Conover wrote.

This, in fact, is exactly what happened in November, when undercover activist Taylor Radig was arrested and charged with animal cruelty in Colorado.

The twist? Many of the ag-gag laws include a “quick reporting” clause, in which failure to report animal abuse or other violations “in a timely manner” constitutes a crime in itself. So Radig, who secretly filmed cattle abuse in the summer but waited until she stopped working at the ranch in question to report the abuse, is now considered complicit in the crimes she wanted to report. (Colorado does not have an ag-gag law on the books, but it does have cruelty-to-animals statutes.)

This sort of situation, wrote Conover, “should very much focus meat-eating Americans on the question of what’s so wrong with our food that the industry would promote draconian laws to keep its practices hidden from view.”

But Radig has not gotten much mainstream press, so most Americans haven’t heard about her. (Change.org is trying to change that with a petition on her behalf.)

In the meantime, the advocacy nonprofit Farm Forward has introduced a petition to ban ag-gag laws. And Mother Jones has a nifty timeline of ag-gag history.

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