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The secrecy police

(article, Culinate staff)

In a recent Huffington Post piece, the food activist Raj Patel revealed that he'd gotten himself kicked out of a Publix supermarket for asking how the store's tomatoes were produced.

"There are some things one just isn't allowed to do in a Publix supermarket," he sighed. "Asking politely about tomato farmworker justice is one of them."

Need the deets on farmworker rights? Patel gave a quick summary: "Agricultural and food corporations have successfully lobbied for farmworkers to be stripped of the workplace laws that protect most other Americans, and there's little enforcement of the few legal protections that farmworkers are meant to enjoy. The result has led to actual cases of 'modern-day slavery' in which farmworkers have been threatened, chained, beaten, and held against their will in debt bondage."

Similar conditions are true for workers on factory farms and in slaughterhouses. Those venues are also the site of much animal cruelty, often brought to the public's attention via surreptitious filming. 

So-called '"ag-gag however, have attempted — like that Publix supermarket — to crack down on aspiring muckrakers, criminalizing filmmaking on factory farms. A dozen-odd states have enacted or are considering bills that, for example, would list offenders on a "terrorist registry."

Meanwhile, ongoing efforts at curbing routine antibiotic use in livestock are encountering similar hurdles. As David Kessler, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, recently wrote in the New York Times, the only people who know exactly what's going on with farm drugs are the farm companies themselves — not the feds, and certainly not the public, who may be most at risk.

bq. In 2011, drugmakers sold nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics for livestock — the largest amount yet recorded and about 80 percent of all reported antibiotic sales that year. The rest was for human health care. We don’t know much more except that, rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another’s waste. 

bq. It may sound counterintuitive, but feeding antibiotics to livestock at low levels may do the most harm. When he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his discovery of penicillin, Alexander Fleming warned that “there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.” He probably could not have imagined that, one day, we would be doing this to billions of animals in factorylike facilities. 

Kessler would like the FDA to crack down on drugmakers and farmers, forcing them to reveal exactly which drugs they're using and when, and then to cut back drastically on drug use. The readers responding to Kessler's op-ed expanded on this notion, but all agreed with the words of letter-writer Irene Muschel: "Secrecy is the hallmark of industrialized animal agriculture and the companies and politicians who promote it and benefit from it."