Who knew there are 14 food boards, presumably regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that receive a billion dollars in taxpayer money to promote agri-business? Who knew these funds were used to stifle negative information about the quality of food products? Agricultural gag laws, (ag-gag) make it a crime to film or photograph activities on farms, leaving cruelty to animals or unsanitary conditions difficult to expose. In North Carolina, a person can be sued who documents a company engaged in unlawful practices. In Wyoming, people are barred from investigating water quality on public lands and may not share any findings with the federal government. (“Schmear Campaign,” by Ted Genoways, New Republic, July/Aug 2016 pg. 7).
The Supreme Court, as well as Congress, gets much of our thanks for these peculiar circumstances. In 2005, the high court decided a corporation has a right to promote its products with taxpayer dollars and, as such, is protected under the First Amendment.(Ibid pg. 7). Justice Scalia, famous for mistaking corporations for people in Citizen’s United, wrote the majority opinion on agribusiness.
For a time, the industry was happy. But when the Egg board was dragged into a dispute between two companies, Unilever and Hampton Creek, over the definition of mayonnaise, the agency sided with Unilever. As Hampton Creek, a maker of vegan foods, had no eggs in its product, it couldn’t be called mayonnaise, it ruled. A graduate student, Ryan Shapiro, became curious about the finding and under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) asked to see the minutes of the meeting. To his surprise, the Egg Board refused, saying it wasn’t a government agency and so it wasn’t subjected to the FOIA. To secure their position, they and the remaining 13 food boards, lobbied Congress. Congressed obliged. It inserted language into an upcoming Agriculture Appropriations Bill which defines the food boards as private. (Ibid pg. 7) If passed, these entities will be allowed to operate in secret.
In today’s world, as Ted Genoway’s article points out, corporations are allowed to track and gather endless information about consumers, but consumers are barred from prying into the business of corporations, even the part that’s tax funded. The Constitution, it seems, has become an instrument to protect commerce rather than people. Is a food board public or private? It’s a chicken or egg question which corporations get to decide.