After Iowa successfully passed the nation's first bill to prevent undercover investigations in industrial animal farms last week, local advocates of sustainable farming were worried Illinois would follow suit.
But today they learned that Illinois bill HB5143 – dubbed the "Ag Gag" bill by opponents -- was quietly tabled Tuesday rather than being called by its sponsor, Rep. Jim Sacia, R-Pecatonica, for a hearing today as was widely expected.
This bill, like others pending across the country, is aimed at combating undercover videos and pictures that have lead to recalls, public outrage and changes in public and corporate food policies. The Farm Bureau and Pork Producers have come out in support of the legislation saying the videos--which often depict alleged animal cruelty--are "taken out of context." They add that no one should be allowed to enter animal facilities under false pretense.
Sacia's office did not return the Tribune's calls or emails asking for comment.
The bill's opponents – who include some Illinois farmers, environmentalists and animal rights supporters --believe it prevents citizens from documenting environmental violations, protects bad actors and portrays good Illinois farmers as having something to hide. Many expressed relief that the bill will remain dormant at least until next session.
"Today was proof of the tremendous opposition that rose up and made their voices heard yesterday," said Karen Hudson, a farmer and spokeswoman for Illinois Citizens for Clean Air and Water, which opposed the bill. "We are in more than 30 counties in the state and many different groups in Illinois rose together and said 'no'. The response was overwhelming. Through phone calls, witness slips and public pressure we made our point."
Meanwhile, two other food bills did get a hearing in Springfield on Tuesday.
SB 2961, which cuts the training time necessary to earn a Food Service Sanitation Manager certificate in the state from 16 to 8 hours, passed its committee hearing easily. In addition to cutting the training hours in half, it requires certificate holders to be re-certified every five years and for all food handlers to have about an hour of food handling instruction.
The Illinois Department of Public Health supported the reduction in food safety training requirements, while the Illinois Restaurant Association opposed it.
"We think food safety training is one of the most important things that restaurant operators or anyone involved in food service is required to do," saidSheila O' Grady, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association. "Nationally, people are adding to training requirements, not reducing them, and so it is really surprising that the IDPH would choose to take such a huge step backwards."
IDPH only said that the hour reduction should be looked at in the context of the whole amendment, which adds provisions to give all food handlers some training and require recertification.
The bill would have required restaurant operators to keep indoor playgrounds clean; currently, no agency regulates cleanliness of these facilities in the state. The legislation was inspired by videos and microbiological tests gathered in restaurants by Erin Carr-Jordan an Arizona mom and professor, who found food morsels, hair, grime and even feces on equipment used by children.
David Vite of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association came out in strong opposition to the bill calling it "over-regulation."
"Children have been playing in playgrounds for centuries," he said. "There are a lot of dangers in this world and this is the least of them."
Franks emerged from the hearing dejected.
"I don't understand what our state is doing," he said. "I thought we'd do better [than getting three votes]. Maybe they don't have kids. Maybe they don't care. I just don't get it. I don't get what's wrong with the expectation that someone is checking to make sure the place is clean enough for your child to play. I think that is a reasonable expectation."