The Iowa Legislature will soon decide whether it is right or wrong for undercover animal rights activists to expose the mistreatment of animals on Iowa farms and livestock processing facilities by secretly video-taping them.
If the legislation becomes law, Iowa would have some of the toughest restrictions on undercover animal rights activists in the nation. A bill currently being debated by lawmakers at the State Capitol in Des Moines would make it illegal for activists to obtain jobs at animal facilities under false pretenses or to videotape farm operations while undercover.
Animal rights activists oppose this legislation, saying it would stop employees from documenting abuses and wouldn't end the mistreatment of animals. Livestock producer organizations say that would not be the case. The producers say such a law would actually aid in getting incidents of animal abuse reported and taken care of promptly.
Farmers say law would aid in prompt reporting of abuse
The proposed legislation would make it illegal to photograph or videotape or create an image or sound recording by any means at an animal facility without the owner's consent. It would also be illegal to possess or distribute such recordings. A first conviction would be an aggravated misdemeanor; a second would be a class D felony.
Farmers want such a law to be put in place. They say animal rights activists have deliberately cast farming operations and livestock production in a negative light and let the cameras roll rather than report the abuse immediately to their employer or manager of the livestock facility. Instead of reporting the incident to the owner of manager of the facility, the undercover activists eventually release the videos to the media to attract national attention.
Bill would ban undercover recordings at animal facilities
Two related bills on this issue are advancing through the state legislature this session: House File 589 has already passed the Iowa House and Senate File 431 is now being debated in the Iowa Senate.
"With this legislation, we're saying we can't allow this fraudulent activity," says Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, D-Manilla, a farmer from western Iowa. "There is no business around that would want that to happen to them." Muhlbauer, who grows corn and soybeans and produces hogs and cattle, says the proposed law is necessary to protect farmers and agribusiness. Such videos can depict farm processes the might seem ugly if not properly explained. Or the filming can be staged or used out of context.
Farmers give animals the best, most efficient care possible, he adds. "If you're neglecting the animals, it comes back to economics; you are losing money. There's a very small margin in the livestock business and the economics keep you on the straight path," says Muhlbauer.
Animal rights activists say this legislation goes too far
Leaders of animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) say such a law would negatively affect food safety and animal protection. They say it would not allow "whistle blowing." However, Muhlbauer and other lawmakers, along with farmers and farm organization leaders, say this legislation is not meant to muzzle complaints.
One example of the type of undercover filming cited by lawmakers occurred in 2008, when two activists for PETA shot video of employees abusing sows at a farm near Bayard. The abuse documented by the video led to criminal convictions of the employees.
However, as Muhlbauer points out, the activists in this Bayard case filmed the abuse for more than six weeks before reporting it. "They were more interested in getting the publicity than in the welfare of the animals," he says.
Farm interests say law is needed for their protection
Kevin Vinchattle, who heads the Iowa Poultry Association and the Iowa Egg Council, says the legislation is needed and is not meant to stop "whistle blowing." If the proposed legislation becomes law "it would protect Iowa agriculture from people who come in and try to do something that disparages and damages a livestock or poultry operation," he says.
There are some people in the world who don't want livestock to be produced, and who don't want people to eat meat or animal products such as eggs or dairy. Or they don't want livestock, poultry and dairy animals to be raised in modern facilities. "My experience is that the animal rights people will say a lot of things that are questionable, and I question the veracity or sincerity of their message and their actions," says Vinchattle.
He adds, "If there is something that someone is concerned about going on at a livestock facility, it's their duty to report it immediately to their employer or manager. If they don't do that, I question what their real motivation is."
ISU professor says to document practices in other ways
Livestock and poultry producers train employees regarding proper animal handling methods to use, as well as how to deliver the proper care and management of the animals.
Maynard Hogberg, chairman of the animal science department at Iowa State University, supports the legislation now being considered in the Iowa Legislature. He says people deserve the truth about whether their food sources are well-managed under the best modern livestock production practices.
However, he adds, "It's too easy to film things that are out of context. People with agendas stage certain things, and that's not delivering the truth." He favors requiring video cameras inside animal facilities or having independent audits of the operations. "We still need to know if what's going on is appropriate for those facilities," says Hogberg.