Iowa is the first state to make it a crime for a person to fraudulently gain access to a farm with intent to cause harm. The law is aimed at individuals and animal rights groups who lie to get inside a farming operation or livestock facility.
Gov. Terry Branstad signed the Agri-cultural Production Facility Fraud Bill into law March 2 despite protests, letters and campaigns launched on Twitter and Facebook by groups that have secretly recorded videos inside livestock and poultry buildings. In recent years, animal activists have released film and photos to the news media and posted them on the Internet to sway public opinion against modern livestock production.
Branstad’s signing was not a surprise; the law went into effect the same day. It makes lying on a job application to gain access to a farm facility a serious misdemeanor, punishable with up to one year in prison and a fine up to $1,500. A second conviction carries harsher penalties. The law also penalizes organizations or people who aid or help someone who misrepresented facts to gain access to a crop or livestock farm.
• New law makes it a crime to apply for a job on a farm under false pretenses.
• Law aims to protect farmers from being misrepresented by anti-livestock groups.
• Legislatures in other states are watching what happens with new Iowa law.
The bill, House File 589, won bipartisan support in the Legislature. The Senate approved it on a 40-to-10 vote; the House by 69 to 28. Critics call it the “Ag Gag” bill, saying it will unfairly prosecute people who blow the whistle on animal abuse. Supporters of the law, however, say true whistle-blowers don’t commit fraud.
Animal rights groups such as Mercy For Animals and the Humane Society of the United States say the new law ignores public sentiment that favors proper treatment of animals and methods of oversight to ensure safe production of food. The groups called on Branstad to veto the bill. “Iowans deserve to know where their food comes from, how the animals have been treated and to have farms held accountable for conditions in the facilities,” says Suzanne McMillan, spokeswoman for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of the groups wanting a veto.
Law will protect farmers
To farmers, the new law is all about ensuring transparency, good animal care and food safety. It makes it unlawful to fraudulently gain access to a farm. They supported the bill, asking Branstad to sign it. Farmers say the law is needed to protect Iowa’s ag economy against activists who deliberately cast modern ag operations and livestock confinements in a negative light.
Animal welfare activists have taken jobs at livestock farms so they can secretly videotape alleged animal abuse and send pictures to the media. Farmers say activists should report alleged instances of animal abuse to the manager of the livestock operation immediately, rather than rushing to the media with videotape. Farmers believe the law is needed to help protect them from being misrepresented by anti-livestock groups.
A past president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, John Weber, raises hogs near Dysart and says most farmers don’t abuse their animals. He says there are systems in place to deal with mistreatment when it’s reported to the management or a sheriff. Weber calls the law a good piece of legislation. Farmers feel attacked when activists distribute videos and reports claiming to show mistreatment of animals. Animal rights groups distribute photos of egg-laying hens in cages, sows in gestation stalls, castration of baby pigs and other production practices the activists are against.
Integrity, safety at stake
Iowa has more than 19 million hogs and 54 million egg-laying hens in barns and buildings. “This is an important and necessary law,” says Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate. Seng, a veterinarian, says the new law strikes a balance by discouraging animal activists from sneaking into facilities, but doesn’t prohibit someone who legitimately works there from reporting incidents of abuse.
“Whether the livestock producers are corporations or smaller farmers, they have a lot invested in their facilities,” he says. “They need to keep unauthorized people out of the buildings to prevent disease from entering. They also need to keep activists out to prevent subversive acts or damage, or misrepresentation meant to bring down the livestock industry.”
Rep. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, shepherded the bill through the Iowa House. Sometimes anti-animal agriculture activists try to sabotage modern livestock and poultry production, she says. “Our agriculture community needs this new law,” adds Sweeney. “We want to make sure everyone involved in our livestock facilities is forthright; to make sure our livestock are kept safe. As farmers, we want to make sure the food we produce is safe and healthy.”
Will law be challenged?
Some legal experts say Iowa’s law may face court challenges, hinging partly on a concept known as prior restraint, which is when free speech is halted before it is produced. But Sweeney says the wording was carefully studied and vetted by the Iowa attorney general. “That’s why the language was changed between the House and Senate versions,” she says. “We feel good about the final version signed into law.”
The day before Branstad signed the bill, a group of 30 people from Mercy For Animals, a California-based organization, protested outside the state capitol in Des Moines. They were symbolically gagged and blindfolded. The group’s attorney, Vandhana Bala, said, “This is flawed and misdirected legislation that sets a dangerous precedent nationwide by allowing animal abuse and environmental violations to occur on factory farms. It will allow food contamination to flourish, unchecked, undetected and unaddressed.”
She added, “Mercy For Animals undercover investigators serve as eyes and ears for the American public who are kept largely in the dark about how animals are treated before they reach our dinner plates. As a civilized society, it is our moral obligation to protect these animals from needless cruelty and suffering.” Bala wouldn’t say whether a legal fund has been established to fight the law in Iowa, or whether Mercy For Animals is operating undercover in Iowa.
Mercy For Animals advises people to adopt a vegetarian diet as the best action against livestock production, to prevent what the group says is cruelty to animals.
KEEP OUT: A new Iowa law aims to make anti-livestock activists who are planning to film undercover video or damage a facility think twice before falsifying a job application.
This article published in the April, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.