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SPJ signs letter opposing Senate Agriculture Committee’s attempt to keep livestock information secret

For Immediate Release:

Clint Brewer, President, (615) 301-9229

Beth King, Communications Manager, (317) 927-8000, ext. 211

INDIANAPOLIS –The Society of Professional Journalists and 28 journalism-advocacy organizations signed onto a Nov. 7 letter to members of the U.S. Senate that opposes non-disclosure provisions in the 2007 Farm Bill approved by the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Oct. 25. The language was drafted by Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

The bill in question stems from the outbreak of mad cow disease that tainted the U.S. beef supply in 2003-04. Federal officials tracked shipments of suspected meat to individual supermarkets, but failed to tell citizens which supermarkets received contaminated meat. Consequently, the public was forced to take a risk with their health when eating red meat. As a result, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration developed a tracking system to follow the lifecycle of a food animal. Despite the government’s efforts to prevent further outbreaks, farmers and food industry groups contested, amid concerns the system could hurt business.

“It’s essential that citizens be made aware of dangers in their own communities, including livestock that can cause serious illness and death,” said SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman David Cuillier. “This bill contradicts everything we as Americans stand for in government transparency. To criminalize the disclosure of cow directory information is shameful. It’s essential that the public is able to trust its government, and it’s essential we can trust what we eat.”

Section 10305 of the Livestock Title exempts disclosure of information from the National Animal Identification Service (NAIS), a move that would violate the Open Government Act introduced by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. If passed, it would allow the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to decide if and when to disclose NAIS information to the owner of an animal in question, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, or to other parties. The bill also would allow the Secretary to disclose the information to foreign governments, but it would forbid the Secretary from disclosing information to the public. Additionally, if the bill is determined constitutional under the First Amendment by the U.S. Supreme Court, reporters and publishers could be jailed or fined for publishing NAIS information.

“The status and safety of the nation’s agricultural infrastructure and ultimately our food supply is of vital public interest,” said SPJ National President Clint Brewer. “Closing access to this information and even criminalizing the publication of it in certain instances is not in the best interest of a free press or the American people.”

The 2007 Farm Bill is being considered this week on the U.S. Senate floor. To further halt the bill from passage, SPJ members and public citizens are being encouraged to write or e-mail their U.S. Senator. For a listing of Senators and their e-mail addresses visit Senate.gov.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For further information about SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.


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