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First They Silenced Activists, Now Big Dairy Is Silencing Farmers

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In Idaho, where a controversial "ag-gag" bill was signed into law in February, things are only getting more secretive at factory farms. Earlier this week, AP obtained a copy of a confidential letter sent by a dairy industry group in the state to its member farmers. The letter urged farmers to deny interview requests from members of the media, and not to offer press tours on their farms.

The letter (see a copy here), sent by United Dairymen of Idaho chairs Tom Dorsey and Tony Vanderhulst, was received by 500 dairy farmers in the state. It noted an increase in media requests to film on farms after the passing of Idaho's ag-gag bill, which banned journalists and whistleblowers from filming at factory farms and slaughterhouses. It recommended that farmers defer media requests to the organization instead of dealing with them on their own:

For protection of your farm and the Idaho dairy industry, we recommend that you coordinate any requests for television, print or radio interviews with the Idaho Dairymen's Association or the Idaho Dairy Products Commission/United Dairymen of Idaho ..."

It also provided four sample responses to deny journalists when asked for an interview or farm tour.

After the story broke, the organization was quick to retract the intent of the letter, releasing this statement:

"It's not the intention of the United Dairymen of Idaho to deny media access to Idaho dairies. In fact our dairy farm families often host dairy tours for media, school students, health professionals and others. We welcome requests for dairy tours for the purpose of educating the public about our industry and, in fact, organizing on-farm tours is one of our primary goals."

When the state's ag-gag bill was first being debated, lobbyists insisted that the law was a measure to protect dairy farmers from misrepresentation in the media. They argued that the law was not an "anti-whistleblower" law, because, in fact, journalists were welcome at any time to do stories on the farms' premises. They invoked an "open door" policy, where dairymen would welcome members of the press.

During a Senate Floor Debate on Feb. 14, Republican Senator James Patrick said:

"They're proud of their dairies. I've been to quite a few dairies and are very proud of them. They show everything, and they really are very open. And most times if you ask to come in and video, you are welcome to do so."

And at a House Committee hearing on Feb. 26, Representative Julie VanOrden echoed this sentiment, mentioning an exposé at a factory farm that made headlines recently:

"When I asked the representative from this dairy ‘If a valid inquirer were to spontaneously come to this facility with concerns and ask for permission to video record, would he be given permission?' This representative said, ‘Yes. My employer would not have a problem with that.' Good ladies and gentlemen, when he answered me there was no hesitation in his voice."

Despite the claims of transparency and the "open door" policy for the public, the letter recently sent by the dairy farm coalition urges farmers not to allow the public to their farms.

This is problematic for two reasons, said Justin Marceau, a Professor of Law at the University of Denver who has worked extensively on the issue of ag-gag laws. With Idaho's ag-gag law in place and a lack of media access, the public has no way to get to information about their food production facilities.

"It's the combination of this policy of ‘no access for media,' plus the creation of a law that criminalizes any acts of investigative journalism or investigations," he told The Dodo. "The combination should be a concern to people who care about civil liberties."

Marceau, who also litigates for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said that the letter marked the second stage in an effort to close off factory farms to the public. First, potential whistleblowers are controlled. Second, farmers are urged not to speak to the press.

"They are staking out a position that would preclude the public access to any of the information about the farms," he said. "Now, we just have take their word that everything is fine."

The practice of outlawing whistleblowers isn't seen in any other commercial industry, he pointed out.

"We wouldn't criminalize undercover videos in child care centers to reveal child abuse, or in the banking sector to reveal financial misconduct," Marceau said. "You can't imagine another industry that would do this; thats what's so shocking."

The Dodo has reached out to the United Dairymen of Idaho for comment.