States Look to Ban Efforts to Reveal Farm Abuse
A Humane Society video from 2010 showed conditions at Iowa farms owned by two of the nation’s largest egg producers.
Video: Animal Abuse at Iowa Egg Factories (via The Humane Society)
Undercover videos showing grainy, sometimes shocking images of sick or injured livestock have become a favorite tool of animal rights organizations to expose what they consider illegal or inhumane treatment of animals.
Made by animal rights advocates posing as farm workers, such videos have prompted meat recalls, slaughterhouse closings, criminal convictions of employees and apologies from corporate executives assuring that the offending images are an aberration.
In Iowa, where agriculture is a dominant force both economically and politically, such undercover investigations could soon be illegal.
A bill before the Iowa legislature would make it a crime to produce, distribute or possess photos and video taken without permission at an agricultural facility. It would also criminalize lying on an application to work at an agriculture facility “with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.”
Similar legislation is being considered in Florida and Minnesota, part of a broader effort by large agricultural companies to pre-emptively block the kind of investigations that have left their operations uncomfortably — and unpredictably — open to scrutiny.
Their opponents, including national groups that oppose industrial farming practices, say these undercover investigations have been invaluable for revealing problems and are a form of whistle-blowing that should be protected. They argue that the legislation, if passed, would essentially hide animal abuse and food safety violations.
Wayne Pacelle, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, noted that secretly recorded videos released last year revealed unsanitary conditions inside egg plants in Iowa. Months later, a different Iowa egg producer was responsible for the largest egg recall in United States history because of salmonella contamination.
“It’s because they don’t want you to see what’s going on that we’ve resorted to employee investigations,” Mr. Pacelle said.
Kevin Vinchattle, chief executive of the Iowa Poultry Association, which helped write the bill, suggested that those willing to lie on an application might go further and stage fake videos, destroy equipment or carry diseases onto farms. He could not provide any examples of those things ever occurring.
“If they misrepresent themselves to come on your operation to do something that’s not in your best interest, they ought to be held accountable for that,” Mr. Vinchattle said.
The Iowa bill was approved by a wide margin by the House and was passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee. It stalled after the attorney general’s office raised concerns that prohibiting the possession and distribution of images — a measure intended to prevent animal rights groups from using them for fund-raising — infringed on free speech. Supporters are working on compromise language.
The use of undercover investigations to expose abuse in agriculture dates back more than a century. The journalist Upton Sinclair spent weeks working in meatpacking plants while researching his book “The Jungle,” and his graphic descriptions of unsanitary conditions prompted federal regulation of the industry.
In recent years, such investigations have increased, along with concerns among consumers about certain industrial farming methods. In Iowa, which is the nation’s largest producer of eggs and pork, several major producers have been targets.
After a 2008 investigation of an Iowa pig farm showed workers beating sows and piglets as well as bragging about the abuse, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals turned over its unedited video to law enforcement, leading to criminal convictions against workers for animal abuse, said Jeff Kerr, general counsel for the organization.
Rose Acre Farms, an egg producer based in Indiana, did not realize that it had been infiltrated until the Humane Society called a news conference a year ago.
The spy was identified as a young man who had worked 15 days caring for the hens at egg producing facilities in Madison County, Iowa. He had been quiet and diligent and then stopped showing up.
Afterward, the company realized that his application mixed truth and lies. He gave his real name and Social Security number. But he listed false references, which the company had not called. And he circled “No” when asked if he was “a member of, associated with, or connected in any way with any organization that could be considered an animal rights group.”
The man, who agreed to be interviewed under the condition that his name not be used, was an employee of the Humane Society. Although he found the work disturbing — he keeps a mostly vegan diet — he said he did what he was asked while recording videos for up to two hours a day with a hidden camera.
“My purpose there isn’t to interfere or do anything, my purpose there is to work and record,” he said. “My purpose is to be the eyes and ears of the public.”
That video showed rows of crowded wire cages, some containing injured and disfigured hens, as well as rotting, dead birds. Employees were seen throwing the birds into bins and talking about how their wings or legs sometimes fell off in the process.
But the company said the video was misleading. It cut many hours of images into just a few minutes and cut back and forth between farms operated by two companies. Among hundreds of thousands of egg-laying hens, sick and dead birds are inevitable, they said. No one alleged a crime had been committed.
Rose Acre Farms did not fire a single employee, though it did institute more extensive background checks for new workers, said Joe Miller, general counsel for the company. “It was a bogus film,” he added.
The association representing egg producers helped draft legislation to ban such videos, earning support from other powerful agricultural groups in Iowa.
“People are scared to death that they might be found in a compromising position,” said Craig Lang, a dairy farmer who is president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, which supports the bill.
The legislation has been strongly backed by Republicans but has also won some Democrats. John P. Kibbie, Democrat of Emmetsburg and president of the State Senate, who has been working on an amended bill expected to be released this week, said he supported the legislation to “make producers feel more comfortable.”
“Agriculture is what Iowa is all about,” Mr. Kibbie said. “Our economy would be in the tank, big time, if it wasn’t for agriculture.”
Senator Matthew W. McCoy, Democrat of Des Moines, who has introduced amendments to weaken or block the bill, said he was worried that it would open Iowa to abuses that could jeopardize food quality and undermine the very agricultural interests supporting the legislation.
“If they have nothing to hide and they are operating ethically, they should have no fear,” Mr. McCoy said.