Over the past several decades, as the agricultural system became increasingly industrialized and the steps from farm to plate multiplied, consumers became farther removed from the sources of their food. Until recently, most consumers in America were content to eat their processed, cheap, and filling foods without giving a second thought to how these foods were produced. The tides are changing. Increasingly, consumers are calling for more transparency in the food system. Repulsed by images of animal cruelty and shocked by unsavory food production practices, consumers want the food industry’s veil lifted and are demanding changes in food production. The booming success of restaurants such as Chipotle, “the food industry’s fastest-rising star,” which serves “naturally- raised” meats and is committed to sourcing “Food with Integrity,” is evidence of this consumer demand for higher quality food.
Undercover activists and outspoken food system critics can be credited with inciting this food revolution. The agricultural industry is waging war on two fronts in response — one aimed at the market and public opinion, and the other at the legislature. In response to falling earnings, evidence of consumer distrust of “large” companies, and consumer preferences for “natural” foods, “Big-Ag” is attempting to rebrand itself through campaigns which pull back the curtain on the reality of its food production. For example, Alliance for Ranchers and McDonald’s have launched transparency campaigns to “open the dialogue” between consumers and producers. On the other front, there are efforts to silence those exposing the truth behind the industrial food system and “seeking to raise legitimate questions about the safety of our nation’s food supply.” As consumers increasingly call for more information about where their food comes from and how it is produced, there has been a resurgence of “ag-gag” and “veggie libel” laws, which raise significant First Amendment concerns.
Since the 1990s, the agricultural industry has used various pieces of state-level legislation such as “farm protection” and “agriculture disparagement” laws to limit media. Farm protection, or “ag-gag,” laws are crafted to limit access to agriculture facilities, and specifically restrict the use of audio and video recording of working agriculture operations. Agriculture disparagement, or “veggie libel,” laws are designed to limit what media and individuals can say about agriculture products and production practices. Nine states have passed ag-gag laws and thirteen states have veggie libel statutes.