Iowa, the country’s top producer of pork and eggs, attracted national attention this month when it became the first state to adopt a law that’s designed to curtail the undercover operations of animal rights activists on farms.
Another seven states have proposed similar “ag-gag” legislation, setting up a battleground that pits activists who say they’re working to combat animal abuse against an industry that says it has been unfairly portrayed and sabotaged by opportunists.
While it’s unclear how often the activists manage to infiltrate farming operations, the images their hidden cameras have captured through the years have forced arrests, law enforcement raids and food recalls, including the largest meat recall in history in 2008.
Back then, the Agriculture Department ordered the recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a California slaughterhouse after the Humane Society of the United States surreptitiously videotaped workers there applying electric shocks to cows too sick or injured to walk and using forklifts to move them and water sprays to force them to stand.
The policy initiatives in Iowa and elsewhere, animal rights groups say, are nothing more than a blatant attempt to cover up these types of abuses, stifle free speech and discourage potential whistleblowers within these facilities from reporting problems.
“The intent is to shield farms that abuse animals from public scrutiny,” said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, which has has conducted 20 undercover investigations since 2007 using hidden cameras. The most recent used hidden cameras to uncover animal abuses that led to felony and misdemeanor charges against six employees at a North Carolina Butterball plant.
Industry groups insist that the new measures do not tamper with whistleblowing laws. Instead, they target extremist groups intent on eliminating meat, milk and egg production by heavily editing video footage of isolated abuses and then releasing it when it suits their political goals or fundraising needs.
“Many of these so-called ag-gag bills require that any incidents of animal abuse be reported immediately,” said Sarah Hubbart, a spokeswoman for the Animal Agriculture Alliance. “Unfortunately, many of these groups hold onto the footage for weeks or months and release it at opportune time, allowing the alleged abuse to continue.”
In Iowa, the state legislature originally crafted a bill that would have made it a crime to possess or distribute a recording made in an animal facility. The state’s attorney general and others flagged serious First Amendment concerns with that provision.
The final bill, signed March 2, scrapped any mention of recordings. But it kept language that uses aspects of trespassing laws. The final measure punishes anyone who gains access to an agriculture production facility under false pretenses or lies on a job application to commit an act that’s not authorized by the owner.
Violating these laws would result in misdemeanor charges punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,875. A subsequent conviction would result in an aggravated misdemeanor charge that could lead to two years of jail time and a fine of up to $6,250.
Randall Wilson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said this legislation will have a chilling effect on activists and whistleblowers. The law does not distinguish between the two, he said.
“A person has to presume that if they report anything, they could be charged with a crime in Iowa,” Wilson said. “For a lot of people, that’s the end of the story right there.”
But state Sen. Joe Seng, a lead author of the legislation, said his bill “does not alter the code at all on whistleblowing” nor does it discourage employees from taking images and reporting abuses. Instead, it protects against outside groups who are trying to undermine legitimate farming operations.
Seng, a Democrat and a veterinarian by trade, said every industry needs watchdogs to root out bad actors. “We tried to get a bill that is straightforward and protects the industry but does not let people off the hook in terms of abuse, either,” he said.