by Joseph Jerome
When an undercover investigation by the Humane Society last week revealed “extreme animal abuse” and deplorable conditions at a massive Pennsylvania egg factory, Iowa lawmakers assuredly breathed a giant sigh of relief. Recently Iowa became the first in the nation to enact an “ag-gag” law designed to prevent and criminalize similar undercover investigations at industrial farms.
The original version of the law introduced last year was draconian in scope, making it a crime to take or even to possess pictures from industrial farms taken without the owner’s consent. In the face of obvious First Amendment concerns that banning pictures of abused farm animals would be unconstitutional, the final law only criminalizes false statements used to obtain employment at these farms or, more ominously, attacks anyone “with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.”
Despite the recent use of undercover reporting to reveal real problems at Iowa farms, the law’s proponents provided a litany of justifications for the law. Governor Terry Branstad (pictured) insisted that undercover films had become a serious problem and claimed H.F. 589 was necessary to protect farmers.
Annette Sweeney, a member of the Iowa House of Representatives and a key sponsor of the legislation, argued that the law protects family farms from political motivated crime. Though the law’s only provisions detail penalties for “agricultural production facility fraud,” Sweeney actually believes the law encourages individuals to immediately report abusive farming practices. “No person would be stopped from reporting alleged abuse,” she wrote in The Des Moines Register. “Rather, only those who have no respect for Iowa laws would be prevented from endangering animals and people in the creation of propaganda designed to support an extremist agenda.”
Iowa’s powerful agriculture industry provided a number of justifications for the law. “It’s about misrepresentation of character,” said Craig Hill, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President and livestock farmer. “In a post 9/11 world, transparency is important for farmers and consumers alike.” In the interest of transparency, however, it may be worth noting that many of the top legislators behind H.F. 589 received major campaign contributions from agricultural organizations supporting the law.
Rob Birkenholz, communications director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, insisted that the pork industry has nothing to hide. "[T]hose who want to see first-hand what it's about, simply have to ask. It all comes down to ethics and honesty," he said, arguing that the law “only attempts to protect the farmer from people who obtain employment under false pretenses. Like any other business, a farmer should have the right to know the true identity of the person who is seeking employment with him or her.”
Yet this rationale begs the question, why does the law apply only to those seeking employment at an industrial farm. Lying on a job application is already grounds for termination from virtually any position of employment. Instead, this law explicitly targets activity that has become sharply critical of what Branstad terms the “cornerstone of the state’s economy.”
One Iowa farmer lamented the measure as an over-regulation of free speech from legislators who claim to be “so concerned about regulations.” According to the state senator Matt McCoy, the “ag-gag” is “incredibly bad public policy for a nonexistent problem that is being worked across the country by big ag.”
Similar bills have been introduced in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New York. Weeks after Iowa passed H.F. 589, Utah enacted an even harsher law to go after undercover reporting of industrial farm abuse. The Utah Farm Bureau’s Sterling Brown insisted that undercover investigations at farms “have done more of a disservice than anything positive.”
But as the Food Integrity Campaign explains, undercover video is a vital tool for proving allegations of wrongdoing and vindicating whistleblowers. One need only recall ABC’s undercover expose into the Food Lion grocery chain’s unsanitary practices for an example of the public good these investigations can produce. Tellingly, Food Lion responded not by challenging the damaging content of the report but by accusing the undercover reporters of fraud. That case, which involved years of legal battles and court fees, had only the threat of civil penalties—these new laws come with potential jail time.
The chilling effect jail time may have on employees who see animals mistreated, meat mishandled, and our food supply threatened is obvious. While Sweeney may claim Iowa’s ag-gag does not stop anyone from reporting abuse, the law’s language prohibiting acts “not authorized” by the industrial farm does little to encourage transparency at these farms. The implied threat of legal action will only discourage employees who see problems from standing up to increasingly powerful agriculture business interests. Protecting farmers from being told lies by their employees may be important ethical concern, but so too is protecting people from conditions that breed E.coli, salmonella, and unhealthy food.
[image via Gage Skidmore]