Published March 15, 2021
While we’re waiting for our priority bills to be scheduled for committee hearings, three other bills of interest are getting committee hearings this week:
- An “Ag-gag” bill.
- A bill to limit the use of SNAP benefits.
- A bill to prevent plant-based and lab-made foods from being labeled as “meat.”
If any of these issues are of interest to you, we provide detailed info on each, below.
If you wish to testify on any of these bills, you must be at the Capitol in person. Instructions are posted at https://mytxlegis.capitol.texas.gov/HWRSPublic/About.aspx. Alternatively, Texas residents can submit electronic comments related to any of the bills, from now until the committee hearing is adjourned (often 10 a.m. of the day of the hearing), by visiting comments.house.texas.gov/home. A copy of your comments will be circulated to all the committee members.
If you submit written comments, we encourage you to also send a copy of them to your State Representative, so that your elected rep knows of your concerns (or support) for the bill.
Want to stay informed on a bill? FARFA will continue to send out updates on important bills, but as the session progresses and gets more hectic, we can’t provide notice of every milestone for every bill. So, if you are particularly interested in a bill, we encourage you to set up your own alert system. Sign up for free on the Texas Legislature Online website. Put the bill on your bill alert list, and you will receive an email whenever it is set for a hearing, approved by Committee, set for a vote, etc.
1. Ag-Gag Bill
HB 1480 by Representative Cyrier, “ relating to the protection of animal and crop facilities; creating a criminal offense,” will be heard by the House Agriculture Committee on Thursday, March 18, at 8 a.m. Senator Kolkhorst filed the Senate version, SB 472.
HB 1480 is really two rather different bills combined into one. The majority of the bill is aimed at physical damage or direct interference with an agricultural operation such as animal rights activists setting animals loose, blocking gates so that trailers couldn’t pass, or cutting fences.
Such interference would be a Class A or B criminal misdemeanor (depending on the amount of damage), and in addition to possible jail time and criminal fines, would require the offender to compensate the farmer for any damage caused. These portions of the bill, while more broadly written than we would have recommended, are generally reasonable and understandable.
And then there’s the “Ag-gag” provision, hidden in some innocuous sounding language. Section 252.002(4) makes it a criminal offense for a person who “knowingly obtains control by theft or deception or exerts unauthorized control over any materials, equipment, animals, or crops of an animal or crop facility for the purpose of depriving the owner or operator of the facility or the facility of materials, equipment, animals, or crops.”
By criminalizing “unauthorized control,” as well as activities related to “materials,” this provision would include such things as obtaining photocopies of documents, taking pictures of animals on the farm, or making a video of farm activities. This effectively criminalizes many common activities conducted by whistleblowers on issues including food safety, animal abuse, and misleading labeling claims.
The bill also provides that the agricultural operation can get a court order (an injunction) preventing a violation – which would mean that a journalist couldn’t publish an article based on materials provided by a whistleblower if they were obtained using “unauthorized control.”
While “Ag-gag” bills are often viewed as being protective of farmers, a 2016 study showed that these laws erode consumers’ trust in farmers. Consumers understandably question why agriculture would need such extreme protections that are not provided to any other industry. Similar bills in other states have been struck down for violating First Amendment protections for free speech.
Our farmers and ranchers should not have to face consumer distrust due to a law that would shield a few bad actors. And neither farmers nor consumers benefit from threatening whistleblowers with criminal sanctions or seeking to restrict the First Amendment rights of individuals and the press. FARFA is urging the bill sponsors to amend the bill to remove the Ag-gag portions.
2. Restrictions on spending SNAP benefits
HB 343 by Representative Cain, “relating to prohibiting the purchase of certain food and drink items under the supplemental nutrition assistance program,” will be heard by the House Human Services Committee on Tuesday, March 16, at 8 a.m.
HB 343 prohibits people from using their SNAP (food stamp) benefits to buy various foods, including energy drinks, carbonated beverages, candy, chips, cookies, or any “sweetened beverage” – which would include not only soft drinks, but any fruit or vegetable juice that had any natural or artificial sweetener added.
Similar bills were filed in past sessions and defeated by a combination of food access advocates and the grocery industry. Proponents of such bills argue that people should not be using tax-funded benefits to buy “junk food.” Opponents point out that these restrictions have not been shown to change anyone’s eating habits, while creating more stigma for people who use SNAP and adding significant costs for retailers.
2. Labeling foods as ‘meat’
HB 316 by Representative Buckley, “relating to the advertising and labeling of certain meat food products,” will be heard by the House Public Health Committee on Wednesday, March 17, at 8 a.m. Senator Springer has filed a companion bill, SB 883.
The bill defines beef, chicken, pork, and meat to prevent any “lab-grown, cell cultures, insect, or plant-based food products” from being labeled with these terms.
Overall, FARFA supports this bill. In particular, lab-grown cell cultures pose a significant danger of misleading consumers into believing that they are getting a product comparable to the actual food drawn from livestock.
The bill language is overbroad, however, and we are submitting comments to encourage changes. A later-filed bill, HB 2277 takes a simpler approach, and we would prefer to see language more similar to that version.
Want to speak up?
Do you want to share your views on any of these bills? You can submit written comments online for the Committee members to review or go to the Capitol to testify in person – click on the hearing notice for the relevant bill and follow the instructions there. Or call your own State Representative to let him or her know where you stand. [Find out who represents you and how to contact them.]