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Agriculture whistleblowers targeted in proposed bill
Members of the Iowa House are expected to vote Tuesday on a bill that would send individual(s) engaging in undercover investigations at state agricultural sites to prison.
The measure, House File 589, which was introduced by Rep. Annette Sweeney (a north-central Iowa rancher) as House File 431, prohibits individuals or groups from “interfering with an animal facility or crop operation.” Such interference, as defined in the bill, would include audio and visual recordings and their distribution. Those found guilty of interference would be prosecuted for an aggravated misdemeanor crime on a first offense and of a class D felony on any subsequent offenses.
In addition, the bill makes it a crime (fraud) for an individual to gain access to an animal facility or crop operation under false pretenses. First offenders would face an aggravated misdemeanor charge and subsequent offenses would garner felony prosecution.
In Iowa, conviction on a class D felony would subject an individual to a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of up to $7,500. Convictions on charges of aggravated misdemeanor carry a term of up to two years in prison, and a fine of up to $6,250.
Whistleblowers, often affiliated with animal rights organizations, have often gone undercover at agricultural operations throughout the nation. Their reports, which are often in video format, have documented serious abuses and, many times, have prompted state and federal officials to further investigate the facility or plant.
For example, years before the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville hit the national radar in 2008 in connection with immigration abuses, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals placed undercover investigators in the plant. In 2004, PETA released an extremely graphic video that depicted several botched slaughters. It was that video and the subsequent public outcry that prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency’s findings noted repeated violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act — many completed in front of federal inspectors.
Suspecting that plant officials had not changed their kosher slaughter techniques to comply with federal law, PETA twice more sent undercover investigators into the plant. Although the USDA agreed that the kosher cuts being made at Agriprocessors were not ideal, the agency also determined that the practices observed were “not egregious.” Ultimately, however, plant officials agreed to stop use of controversial secondary cuts until further approval of the practice was found.
The Associated Press relied on an undercover video of a Bayard hog farm in 2008 in presenting a report. The subsequent news item sparked international outrage, and even raised the eyebrows of some longtime Iowans.
More recently, in April 2010, a video from Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises, two Iowa egg producers, was released as the end result of an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States. Only weeks later two different Iowa egg producers voluntarily recalled millions of eggs linked to Salmonella outbreaks.
The group argues that the “egregious animal cruelty” that they uncovered is what has prompted Iowa’s agribusiness industry to push for this specific bill.
“[Those interests want] to shield their inhumane practices from public scrutiny and stifle open dialogue on animal welfare issues,” warns an action alert by HSUS. “Existing law already prohibits interference with and disruption of animal facility operations. This bill targets legal investigative reporting.”
America’s producers argue that the undercover reports released by such organizations provide the public a look at non-typical happenings within the agricultural sector — a view that has been used to hurt all producers. Others believe that many urban residents are so far removed from the farm and rural life that much of what is done in an effort to protect livestock is considered inhumane.
And still others are more than happy to arrest and prosecute those who wish to investigate their businesses.
“This legislation comes as a breath of fresh air to me,” wrote Jim S. on the American Veterinary Medical Association’s website when asked to offer his opinion of the proposed bill. “Too long have the HSUS and PETA activists controlled animal agriculture legislation. Their extremist views and ‘abuse’ videos have hurt agriculture time and time again, and it is time to put a stop to their lies. HSUS has already started to ratchet up their opposition to this bill as it exposes their vulnerability through the illegally obtained videos, editing, and choreographed scenes of alleged animal abuse. I would ask the AVMA to support this bill because not only does the legislation represent your clients, it also protects animals from bio-terrorism and abuse from staged videos by activists.”
Instead of publicly releasing videos, which harms the entire industry, people who see abuse should be encouraged to see resolution through existing regulatory and legal channels, say advocates of the bill.
To date, the bill has been flooded with lobbyist approval from the entire gamut of the agricultural industry — from dairy producers to greenhouse growers to Monsanto Co. Those who have taken a stand against the bill (and there aren’t very many) are organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union who perceive potential 1st Amendment rights violations.
Other states in addition to Iowa are also considering similar legislation.
If the bill is given approval by the Iowa House, it will move to the Senate for another round of debate. If it is ultimately signed into law, however, it would be the first piece of legislation of its kind in the nation.