Iowa is the first state to make it a crime to surreptitiously get inside a farming operation or livestock facility to cause harm or to secretly record video or snap photographs. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad signed the so-called "ag gag" bill into law Friday evening March 2. He signed the bill despite protests, letters and campaigns launched on Twitter and Facebook by animal welfare groups that have secretly taped videos inside livestock and poultry buildings. In a number of cases in recent years in Iowa and other states, the animal rights groups have released their film and photos to the media to sway public opinion against what these groups consider to be cruel livestock production practices.
Branstad's signing of the bill was not a surprise. He signed the measure and issued no statement about his decision. The new law will go into effect July 1, 2012. It makes lying on a job application to get access to a farm facility a serious misdemeanor, punishable with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,500. A second conviction carries harsher penalties. The new law also penalizes organizations or persons who aid or help someone who misrepresented facts to gain access to a crop or livestock farm.
Bill won overwhelming approval and bipartisan support in Iowa Legislature
The Iowa Legislature on February 28 passed the legislation. The bill is officially known as House File 589. The Iowa Senate approved the bill on a 40 to 10 vote. Later that day (February 28) the Iowa House took up the bill, adopted the Senate's changes without debate and approved it on a 69 to 28 vote, and then sent it to the governor.
Critics call it the "Ag Gag" bill because they say it will unfairly prosecute people who "blow the whistle" on animal abuse. They say the bill ignores strong public sentiment that favors proper treatment of animals and methods of oversight that ensure safe production of food. The animal rights groups had called on Branstad to veto the bill.
"Iowans deserve to know where their food is coming from. They deserve to know how the animals they are consuming have been treated and Iowans deserve to have farms held accountable for the conditions in these facilities," says Suzanne McMillan, a spokeswoman for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, one of a number of groups that were lobbying Branstad to veto the bill. She says by signing the bill into law, Branstad is going against all those concerns and the priorities that Iowans hold.
Law will protect farmers from being misrepresented by anti-livestock groups
Farmers and farm organizations supported the bill and were asking Branstad to sign it into law. Supporters call it the "Agriculture Protection Bill." They say it is needed to protect the state's agricultural economy against activists who deliberately cast farming operations, particularly confinement livestock operations, in a negative light. Animal welfare activists have taken jobs working at farms and livestock facilities in Iowa and other states so they can secretly videotape occurrences of alleged animal abuse and send the pictures to the media. Farmers and farm organizations say that the activists should report alleged instances of animal abuse to the management of the livestock operation immediately—rather than rushing to the media with videotape.
John Weber, a former president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association, who farms and raises hogs at Dysart, Iowa, says most farmers don't abuse or mistreat their animals. He also points out there are systems in place to deal with mistreatment when it is reported to the management or to a local authority such as a county sheriff. Weber calls the new law a good piece of legislation. "It will give farmers some protection from people who enter the farm facilities fraudulently," he notes.
Iowa livestock producers have felt under attack since activists have been distributing videos and reports claiming to show mistreatment of animals, from pigs being beaten to baby chicks being destroyed. Animal welfare activists also distribute photos of egg-laying hens in caged operations, sows in farrowing stalls, castration of baby pigs and other modern livestock production practices which the activists are against.
Supporters say HF 589 helps protect integrity and safety of family farms
Iowa has more than 19 million hogs and 54 million egg-laying chickens in barns and confinement buildings. "This is an important and necessary law for the state of Iowa," says Joe Seng, a Democrat and state senator from Davenport who sponsored the bill in the Iowa senate. Seng, a veterinarian, says the new law strikes a balance by discouraging animal activists from sneaking into livestock facilities but does not prohibit someone who legitimately works there from reporting incidents of animal abuse.
"Whether the livestock producers are corporations or smaller farmers, they have a lot of dollars invested in their facilities," says Seng. "They need to keep unauthorized people out of those buildings to prevent disease from entering. They also need to keep the activists out to prevent subversive acts or damage or misrepresentation that is meant to try to harm and bring down the livestock industry."
Annette Sweeney, a Republican state representative from Alden, shepherded the bill through the Iowa House. Sometimes anti-animal agriculture activists stage events to sabotage modern livestock and poultry production, she notes. "Our agriculture community needs this new law," says Sweeney. "We want to make sure everybody involved in our livestock facilities is forthright and we want to make sure our livestock are kept safe. As farmers, we want to make sure the food we produce is safe and healthy."
Legislatures in other states watching what happens with new Iowa law
Legislatures in seven other states—Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Utah—are considering laws that would enhance penalties against people and organizations who secretly record video of livestock. The legislative efforts have stalled in some of those states. The bill that passed in Iowa and was quickly signed by Governor Branstad was changed from an earlier version because of concerns that language making an undercover video recording illegal could violate free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution. Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, says he hopes Iowa's action can lead the way for other states to pass similar legislation.
The day before Branstad signed the new bill into law, protesters gathered outside the State Capitol in Des Moines--a group of 30 people from the organization Mercy For Animals, which is based in California. They were symbolically gagged and blindfolded.
The group's attorney, Vandhana Bala, representing Mercy For Animals, 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."
Will new Iowa law be challenged in court? Some legal experts say it may
Bala says the Mercy For Animals undercover investigations of livestock and poultry confinement operations in Iowa and other states have led to criminal charges for animal cruelty as well as landmark legislation and rescues of abused and neglected animals, and have led to policy changes in major corporations—such as the recent announcement by McDonalds. In a joint press release last month The Humane Society of the United States and fast food giant McDonalds announced that McDonalds wants its pork suppliers in the U.S. to phase out the use of sow gestation crates. McDonalds has asked all of its pork suppliers to outline plans for the switch by May.
Some legal experts say Iowa's new 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.
Bala wouldn't say whether a legal fund has been established to fight the legislation now that it has become law in Iowa, or whether the Mercy For Animals group is currently operating undercover in Iowa. On its website, Mercy For Animals advises people to adopt a vegetarian diet as the best action to take against confinement livestock production, to prevent what the group believes is cruelty to animals.