Measures to stop livestock taping stall in states

Published 12:11 pm Monday, June 13, 2011

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Efforts to outlaw the undercover recording of animal abuse in livestock operations appear to have stalled in Iowa and other states in the face of complaints that the proposals were intended primarily to protect the industry with little concern for animals’ welfare.

A measure to punish those who make secret videos initially appeared to be sailing through the Iowa Legislature, but after clearing the state House it has sputtered out in the Senate and appears dead for this session. Similar measures also have faltered in Minnesota, Florida and New York.

The issue is important to livestock operators, who claim their industry has been tarred by people who lie to obtain jobs, then stitch together videos that they upload to the Internet in an effort to make the treatment of hogs, cattle and chickens look as cruel as possible. Livestock owners and their supporters say the groups’ ultimate goal is to convince Americans to forgo meat and adopt vegan lifestyles.

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“I feel it is wrong to absolutely lie to get a job to try to defame the employer,” said Rep. Annette Sweeney, a farmer and Republican legislator from the small northern Iowa town of Alden who sponsored the bill.

Animal rights activists respond that livestock operators want to stop the public from seeing how their animals are treated.

“A well-managed farm has nothing to hide,” said Emily Vaughn, a program manager at New York-based Slow Food USA. “It’s something that people have the right to know.”

The Iowa measure would have prohibited recordings of farm animal treatment and punished people who take agriculture jobs only to gain access to the animals for videotaping. Proposed penalties included fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years in prison.

In Iowa, the measure initially had plenty of support, reflecting the importance agriculture holds in a state that leads the nation in production of corn, soybeans, hogs and eggs. Although most Iowa residents live in cities, agriculture remains important them and is a powerful force in the Legislature.

Many lawmakers from both parties were sympathetic to the argument that the state needed to get tough on activists who misrepresented themselves to gain access to farms. Iowa operators have felt under attack since activists distributed a series of videos that they claimed showed the mistreatment of animals, from pigs being beaten to chicks being ground up alive.

In some instances, operators admitted the videos showed problems, but they said activists should have reported any mistreatment directly to farm managers rather than publicize the images.

“I don’t believe in people being hired under false pretenses to get access to these facilities to portray their side of the story,” said Cody McKinley, a public policy director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

Bruce Berven, a lobbyist for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, claimed activists had broader goals than ensuring farm animals were treated humanely.

“Their agenda is clear and basically anti-livestock,” Berven said. “They are basically just using this issue to promote their vegan-slash-vegetarian agenda. There’s a bigger war going on than this issue.”

A number of national groups supported the Iowa legislation, including the National Turkey Federation and the National Pork Producers Council.

Pat McGonegle, a vice president for the national pork producers, said his group backs such legislation because producers “need protection from people who have mischievous intentions and this does just that.”

Ultimately, though, the legislation stalled in the face of strong opposition from animal welfare groups.

The Humane Society of the United States was among those leading the fight against measures in Iowa and other states. Humane Society spokeswoman Carol Rigelon said opponents were careful to avoid being critical of agriculture as an industry.

“What we’re trying to do is expose things that might not otherwise be exposed and as a result make agriculture even better,” Rigelon said.

Vaughn, of Slow Food USA, called their effort “positive activism.” She said her group and others tried to talk positively about farmers who agree with their vision of sustainably produced food and the humane treatment of animals.

“We have been celebrating farmers,” Vaughn said. “We’d like to see more of them.”

Democratic Sen. Gene Fraise, a farmer from Fort Madison, said he’s not sure what to think about the issue. He abhors animal abuse but also knows it’s hard to run a farm without trusted employees.

“If you hire somebody to work for you, and if you can’t trust them, you’ve got a problem,” Fraise said. “We’ve had hired help, and I would have trusted the farm with them.”