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Iowa Moves to Ban Filming of Factory Farm Abuse

New law would make undercover video a felony

Pigs at factory farms are routinely unable even to turn around

The Iowa State Legislature is preparing to vote on a bill that would make it illegal for undercover investigators to capture video of cows, pigs and other animals being abused at factory farms.

The bill would make it an offense for activists to obtain jobs at animal facilities “under false pretenses” in order to document these abuses.

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, carrying a potential prison sentence of up to five years.

Factory farm owners argue that animal protection groups have deliberately shown these operations in a negative light. They say that abuses should be reported to managers, rather than being broadcast to the general public.

“With this legislation, we’re saying we can’t allow this fraudulent activity,” said Rep. Dan Muhlbauer, D-Manilla, a pig and cow farmer from western Iowa. “There is no business around that would want that to happen to them.”

Muhlbauer said 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.

“If there is something that someone is concerned about going on at a livestock facility,” said Kevin Vinchattle, head of the Iowa Poultry Association and Iowa Egg Council, “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.”

Animal protection groups counter that the abuses are routine, and often with the full knowledge of managers and owners, and that workers do not report them, for fear of losing their jobs.

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa opposes the legislation. “Thankfully, because of whistleblowers and others doing undercover work, we are finding out about a lot of the abuses that are taking place in animal agriculture — and some of those abuses have just been awful,” he said during a conference call with reporters.

Even those in the business of promoting factory farms are nervous about the bill. Iowa advertising specialist Michael Libbie calls it a major PR mistake:

“At a time when agriculture needs more, not less, friends . . . this will only fuel the fires of those who already think animal agriculture is evil. And for those who don’t, they just might start wondering, ‘So, what is going on they don’t want me to know about?’ ”

Humane organizations are mounting a lobbying campaign to stop the passage of the bill. On his blog, Wayne Pacelle, President of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote:

“I can understand why factory farmers don’t want the public seeing images of their business practices. The images of almost featherless hens, so crowded the animals are living on top of each other, or pigs being struck with metal bars by workers coarsened to their duties are deeply disconcerting.

“[The factory farm owners] want to prevent their very own customers, America’s consuming public, from learning about the production practices that bring food to their tables and plates. They’d be best advised to follow the original lead of Florida and other states that have adopted modest animal welfare reforms. Ban the extreme confinement of laying hens and pigs in small cages and commit to sound and safe animal husbandry practices.

“Transparency is a bulwark in a democratic society, and it’s also critical in an era of systemic animal mistreatment and food safety threats.”