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We’re With John Oliver

We’re With John Oliver

BY David Muraskin
Food Safety & Health Attorney

Last Sunday, HBO’s John Oliver demonstrated how the corporate juggernauts that control our animal agriculture (and thereby our food) not only exploit workers, but silence their critics through their influence over our representatives in Washington. As Oliver accurately recounts in the clip below, corporate America has reintroduced sharecropping as the method by which we raise and bring animals to slaughter. Companies that are entirely disconnected from the land direct how the animals are to be kept and raised – focusing on what will maximize profits, even if it’s against the wishes of farmers and the communities living on their fence lines – and prevent farmers from ever being able to develop independent businesses that could employ more humane and socially conscious methods. They do so, in large part, by keeping farmers in debt.

Congress passed legislation targeting some of these practices, in an attempt to prohibit retaliation against growers that speak out about industry abuses and anti-competitive practices. But, just three years later, industrial agriculture’s champions passed new legislation that prevented those rules from taking effect.

Oliver’s focus on Congress’s interference with its own legislation, however, merely brushes the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how corporate agriculture has displaced our systems for consumer protection. Any legislation will be meaningless unless the regulators are willing to address consumer and worker concerns. Instead, the reality is that the USDA and corporate agriculture are largely one-and-the-same. Just consider that, in 2006, the former USDA official charged with overseeing the United States’ slaughterhouses joined the board of Hormel, one of the only companies that gets to run its slaughterhouses even faster than the already blistering pace that USDA typically allows. Then, in 2011, the chief of staff at USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service left to join the National Turkey Federation, whose own website states that its goal is to protect the vertical integration of the turkey industry so that companies can control the “research, hatching, growing, feeding, processing, packaging, transportation and marketing” of the birds. Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, was the founder and chair of the Governors’ Biotechnology Partnership, an organization dedicated to expanding the influence of the chemical farming methods on which industrial agriculture relies.

This week the SEIU was able to go to the Federal Trade Commission to seek to stop McDonalds, Wendy’s, and others from exploiting their franchisees in ways similar to the practices of the poultry industry that Oliver profiled on Last Week Tonight. Because the FTC is willing to regulate the relationship between restaurateurs and their corporate headquarters, the franchisees were able to petition for relief from what they characterized as unreasonable demands and unnecessary expenditures. Yet, agricultural workers have no similar place to turn.

Moreover, as workers and consumers are being denied relief at the federal level, the industry is preventing individuals from even reporting what’s going on at farms.  As Leslie Brueckner has detailed here, the Idaho dairy trade association is pushing to get farmers to ban media from accessing the dairies.  At the behest of industry, numerous states have passed so-called “Ag-Gag” laws that criminalize photographing animal factories without the owners’ consent, intimidating whistleblowers.

Public Justice is working against many of these industry efforts. We have banded together with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, Center for Food Safety, and Farm Sanctuary (among others), to fight the Idaho Ag-Gag law. We are also actively looking for ways to represent agricultural workers’ rights and safety. And our work to expose the practices of factory farms continues.  And while we’re with Oliver in his criticisms, we also wish he’d noted that the work against corporate agriculture must be multi-faceted and occur at every level. These companies have captured all types of federal and state officials, and to the extent they cannot control their regulators, they seek to hide their practices.