An omnibus agriculture bill containing a provision written to stop animal rights activists and food justice advocates from taking pictures of farming operations in Florida passed through an agriculture committee this week.

Buried in a bill that includes stormwater management rules and traffic rules for citrus harvesting equipment and citrus fruit loaders, is a measure that would make taking pictures or recording images of “a farm or farm operation … without the prior written consent of the farm’s owner or the owner’s authorized representative” a crime.

The provision has been denounced by animal rights groups, who say it is a way to prevent information obtained by “whistleblowing employees and undercover investigations” from coming to light. The information, in the past, has included exposés documenting “animal abuse, unsafe working conditions, and environmental problems,” according to one group.

As The Florida Independent’s Brett Ader previously reported, the bill had been crafted “at the behest of Wilton Simpson of Pasco County, where Simpson Farms produces 21 million eggs annually for Florida’s second-largest egg seller, Tampa Farm Service.”

“Simpson, who is currently running for the Florida Senate,” Ader reported, “suggested the language of the original bill, which had initially sought to make pictures taken ‘at or of a farm’ a first-degree felony.”

The bill’s house sponsor, state Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, called the controversial provision a way of preventing “industrial espionage” during the bill’s committee stop on Wednesday. He said he wanted to stop people who are allowed to go on farms such as business and professional regulation services, police officers, government employees, engineers, land surveyors and insurers from coming in “under false pretenses” and take pictures.

He said he has worked with farmers for the “vast majority of [his] life,” and claims farmers “are making sure … there is accountability for the farms.”

Laura Bevan of the Humane Society of the United States testified against the bill and called it “unnecessary and bad legislation.” Bevan said that the issue at hand was food safety and the rights of farm workers. She said that whistleblowing cannot be left to people to “buck their own industry.”

“We already have laws about trespassing — they are good enough,” Bevan said.

The Human Society released a press release on Albritton’s bill that says:

Agribusiness interests want to criminalize undercover exposés by introducing “Ag-Gag” bills in several states to outlaw such activities as producing, possessing or distributing video or photographs taken on a farm without the owner’s approval – effectively blocking whistleblowers from exposing animal cruelty, food safety issues, poor working conditions and more.

Section 6 of SB 1184/HB 1021 would criminalize photography, videotaping and audio recording of a broad array of activities on agricultural property. Even employees and journalists who take photos or video to document misconduct on farms could face criminal prosecution if Section 6 is passed, whether it’s documenting mistreatment of animals, food safety concerns, worker safety violations, sexual harassment, financial embezzlement, or environmental crimes.

State Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami, also spoke against the bill and said that if the bill were to pass, the “whistleblower effect would be all gone.”

“Public welfare is at stake,” he said. “This is about the health and well-being of our children.”

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