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Iowa agriculture committees approve bill that would limit animal groups' undercover investigations


DES MOINES, Iowa — Angered by repeated releases of secretly filmed videos claiming to show the mistreatment of farm animals, Iowa's agriculture industry is pushing legislation that would make it illegal for animal rights activists to produce and distribute such images.

Agriculture committees in the Iowa House and Senate have approved a bill that would prohibit such recordings and punish people who take agriculture jobs only to gain access to animals to record their treatment. Proposed penalties include fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years in prison. Votes by the full House and Senate have not yet been set.

Doug Farquhar, program director for environmental health at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Iowa would be the first state to approve such restrictions but Florida is considering similar legislation. The Iowa measure was introduced after a number of groups released videos showing cows being shocked, pigs beaten and chicks ground up alive.

"It's very transparent what agribusiness is attempting to do here," said Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Assn., a California-based group dedicated to protecting farm animals from abuse. "They're trying to intimidate whistleblowers and put a chill on legitimate anti-cruelty investigations. Clearly the industry feels that it has something to hide or it wouldn't be going to these extreme and absurd lengths."

Legislators and farming groups respond that they're only trying to prevent people from fraudulently seeking jobs in order to shoot videos that may give an unfair perspective on livestock operations. Rather than videotape and publicize abuse, supporters of the Iowa measure said, people should report wrongs they see and work through proper channels to prevent them.

They point out that in cases such as at a hatchery in Spencer, where video of male chicks being tossed into grinders was secretly made in 2009, no complaints were filed.

"We believe this can help prosecute those people who, while they claim to have animals' interests at heart, don't really follow through and report the animal abuse -- if in fact there actually is anything -- immediately like they're required to," said Tom Shipley, a lobbyist with the Iowa Cattlemen's Assn. "They hang on to that information for publicity purposes."

He also said the bill would prevent businesses from being hurt by people who were hired under false pretenses. Agriculture is an important industry in Iowa, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it was responsible for $24.7 billion in direct sales in 2008.

"There are definitely groups out there that have an agenda that don't want animal agriculture in business and that's not right," said Kevin Vinchattle, chief executive officer of the Iowa Poultry Assn. "I think that some people will go a long way to do or say anything to try to make a group of people look bad."

Paul Shapiro, a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States, called the Iowa measure "draconian" and said only through awareness created by publicity can the nation work to protect farm animals. The Humane Society releases secretly filmed videos several times a year, and its efforts have led to plant closures and the recall of millions of pounds of meat, Shapiro said.

"This is a pretty novel concept and it's one that's intended to basically keep animal cruelty problems secret on factory farms," Shapiro said. "What's needed is reform of these factory farms that will prevent cruelty to animals. What's not needed is to make factory farming cruelties more secretive."

Nathan Runkle, executive director of Chicago-based Mercy for Animals, which was responsible for the chick video recorded at Hy-Line North America, took a similar position. Many hatcheries still kill male chicks that way because they have little value, he said.

"We feel the agribusiness industry should be trying to root out animal cruelty and expose it," Runkle said. "As a moral society, it is our obligation to prevent all cruelty to animals and it's difficult to end abuse when you can't expose it."

The Iowa bill is expected to be approved in the Republican-controlled House, but it's unclear whether the Democratic-controlled Senate will pass it.

Florida's bill has been introduced and referred to several committees but has not yet been subject to a vote.

Republican Rep. Annette Sweeney, a rancher from the north-central Iowa town of Alden who is sponsoring the bill, said she remains hopeful the proposal will be approved. She believes it will encourage people to report abuses.

"As a livestock producer, I want people to feel if they see something going on this bill empowers them," Sweeney said.

But Jeff Kerr, general counsel for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said the Iowa legislation is misguided, at best.

"They're trying to criminalize someone being an eyewitness to a crime," Kerr said. "The people who do the very difficult job of documenting that criminal conduct should be applauded."

Pigs subject to abuse at Virginia factory farm, Humane Society of the United States says
Ohio dairy farm worker sentenced in animal cruelty case after release of undercover video

-- Andrew Duffelmeyer, Associated Press

Photo: A frame grab from the 2009 video made by an undercover member of Mercy for Animals shows a group of chicks corralled at Hy-Line North America's hatchery in Spencer, Iowa. Credit: Associated Press

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""legislation that would make it illegal for animal rights activists to produce and distribute such images."

I think this is unconstitutional on its face. And if you have to ban images, you must be doing something wrong.

Animal cruelty should be exposed.....and the minute it is....Arrest should be made....And Maximum Sentences Passed!!

I think its wrong to make it illegal to make videos of how companies are abusing animals. the companies that do abuse them should be shut down and re-staffed with people that wont abuse them.

Why are the representatives elected to serve our citizens (not corporations) and defend our constitution doing exactly the opposite? In an era where some of the very same people are crying out for transparency, these evil lackies of corporate interests are conspiring to keep our citizens in the dark, and conspiring to violate the first amendment, and probably the fourth, fifth, and eighth. This isn't about protecting national security or even corporate trade secrets. This is about hiding ugly truths. Why would anyone who is not evil and corrupt even dream of proposing penalties as harsh as those for vehicular homicide for exposing the truth. Even extreme animal abuse is a misdemeanor, but this would make reporting such abuse a severe felony?!?

The house and senate bills violate the spirit and intent, if not the letter, of the federal whistleblower protection. The legislators (and lobbyists) supporting this legislation should be charged with conspiracy, have all their assets seized, and be thrown in federal prison.

In keeping with the spirit of this legislation, I would propose federal legislation that would make it a capital offense to pass laws that punish whistleblowers.

Wow. This story literally make me sick and ashamed. Does Rep. Sweeney and the other lawmakers really think the public is that stupid? It is so obvious what is going on here. I seriously loose more respect for these kinds of people more and more. I can't even find the right words to express how much this hurts my heart for all farm factory animals.


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