November 28, 2007

Beef and pork lobbyists worked behind the scenes in November on the stalled Senate Farm Bill to prevent U.S. meat-eaters from knowing about possibly tainted meat - even as major companies were recalling hamburger shipments.

Publishing the origin of 4th-of-July hamburgers could land anyone - including newspaper publishers and consumer activists - in jail for up to 10 years if the animal feeding industry succeeds in getting a little-noticed amendment enacted into law. Citing the location of a large feedlot would likewise be a crime, even when the smell of the lot offended people a mile away and federal law requires disclosure of its address under the Clean Water Act.

After newspaper groups urged Senate leaders to remove the secrecy language from the Farm Bill, beef lobbyists launched a counter-offensive to keep the language in the bill. The language forbids most disclosure (and any public disclosure) of any information in the National Animal Identification System (NAIS).

The Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and six other journalism groups urged Senators in a Nov. 7, 2007, letter to strike the secrecy language. Joining SEJ were the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the National Press Foundation, and UNITY: Journalists of Color. Other journalism groups lobbied behind the scenes for removal of the language.

Senate leaders seemed poised to soften the secrecy language in the Senate Farm Bill, but in a letter of Nov. 15, the American Farm Bureau Federation and 12 other agriculture groups opposed any change in the provision. They said that the NAIS threatened them with disclosure of "confidential personal and business information." They did not specify any examples of what kind of NAIS information might be personal or confidential. The number of animals at a facility is in some cases limited by Clean Water Act discharge permits. Disclosure of the actual number of animals at a facility could, in rare cases, reveal a violation of the permit and the law.

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