For many good food advocates, the end of a legislative session often means disappointment that their bills to help fix our broken food system did not pass. But in some states, when lawmakers go home we should really all breathe a big sigh of relief.

Such was the case last week when the Iowa Legislature adjourned without passing one of the more obnoxious proposals to rear its ugly head in any state house this year. In the wake of video footage exposing the horrific conditions of animals raised for our consumption, agribusiness decided it was time to fight back.

Iowa House File 589 would have made it a crime to “produce” an image or sound recording at an animal facility without permission from the owner. To ensure that media outlets also got the message, even possession and distribution of such recordings would have been outlawed.

For the first offense, you could be charged with an “aggravated misdemeanor” while a second offense could bring felony charges. And that was just under the section, “animal facility interference.” You could also be brought up on charges of animal facility fraud, crop operation tampering, crop operation interference, and crop operation fraud, each with its own mind-bending definition.

Earlier this year, Minnesota and Florida introduced similar bills. New York jumped into the fray in June, the last month of the legislative session there. The New York bill, titled without a hint of irony, “unlawful tampering with farm animals,” threatened punishment up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine.

While these bills are particularly egregious, it’s not the first time that Big Agribusiness has attempted to silence its critics through a state-by-state attack on free speech rights. In fact, one of the first op-ed articles I ever published was on the “veggie libel laws” that were passed in the late 1990s. These statues, which were enacted in at least a dozen states, essentially turned speaking negatively about any food into a potential libel lawsuit. It was under one such statute in Texas that Oprah Winfrey was sued by six cattle feeder corporations for doing a show on the risks of mad cow disease in beef. (She won the case.)

That state-by-state lobbying effort was also led by powerful agriculture interests able to find friendly legislators to do their bidding. Another familiar theme is how the ag gag bills are so obviously a violation of the First Amendment. At least two constitutional law experts (both in Iowa) agree that these measures are unlikely to withstand a court challenge. But that hardly seems to matter.

What does matter is that the message is sent loud and clear to anyone who seeks to expose the unspeakable atrocities that animals suffer daily on factory farms: that engaging in such reporting will have serious consequences. It’s called chilling speech.

The good news is that so far, no ag gag bill has passed. While some animal advocacy groups have hailed the failure in all four states where bills were introduced, I wouldn’t recommend a victory party just yet. Procedurally, the bills were not voted down or vetoed by any governor. Rather, they each passed through their respective committees and died before coming to a full chamber vote. A positive sign for sure, but still no guarantee the threat is over.

For example, in Iowa, the bill passed the House but was left to die without a full vote in the Senate. According to an interview with Iowa Rep. Jim Lykam (who is opposed), as a two-year bill, the measure doesn’t even have to be reintroduced for the Legislature to vote on it again, come January 2012. And Republican Gov. Terry Branstad is already on record in favor of the idea.

The lead sponsor in Iowa was Republican Rep. Annette Sweeney, a cattle rancher and former executive director of the Iowa Angus Association. Also on record in support of the bill are the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association and the Iowa Poultry Association. Other Big Ag backers according to one account included “Monsanto, DuPont, and other mammoth agriculture corporations and trade associations.”

Such heavy hitters don’t let one minor setback get them down. Dave Murphy, founder and executive director of Food Democracy Now — an advocacy group based in Iowa — agrees we should not get complacent. “Iowans were fortunate this year. Intense opposition and media scrutiny helped kill it in the end. This victory, however, is temporary as proponents are promising to reintroduce the bill next year,” he said.

This is what agribusiness does best: keep up the lobbying pressure wherever they can. Indeed, signs indicate that these bills are part of a nationally coordinated effort. For example, the language of the Iowa and Minnesota bills bear a striking resemblance, suggesting a state-by-state attack strategy –j ust like the veggie libel laws. The language of those earlier bills was virtually identical.

The sponsor of the Minnesota bill is Rep. Rod Hamilton, past president of the Minnesota Pork Producers. And, apparently, the bill was aided by the Minnesota Agri-Growth Council, a powerful agricultural lobbying group. Dayrn McBeth, president of the organization, explained their strategy: “Neither we nor the authors expect to pass these bills. It was intended to start a conversation.”

Or maybe stop one?

Here’s what I wrote in 1998: “These laws are nothing more than an effort by big business to chill the free speech efforts by those seeking to raise legitimate questions about the safety of our nation’s food supply.” Just add “and concerns about animal welfare” and it’s déjà vu all over again.


  • KSMeatGuy

    First, undercover videoing in animal production facilities and processing plants can be put our food supply in danger. That’s why video is prohibited at many packing plants and farms. Second, if someone is hired as an employee for a farm or plant it is their responsibility to inform the owner/manager of any questionable handling practices that occur (this is one of the only ways we can eliminate these so-called “atrocities” that occur). I am in favor of these types of laws, so we can deter people that will take 300 hrs of film and find a single 1-minute clip where something wasn’t done correctly and make it seem like a producer is out to torture animals. Like in everything, I am sure there are a few bad eggs out there but 99+% of the livestock production system takes pride in handling animals correctly. Calm, well-raised animals produce higher quality meat.

  • Richard Ross

    A company should be able to ban the use of photography or recordings of any kind on their property. It should be a business work rule and should be a termination offense if the rule is broken. One doesn’t need a state law.

  • Anygirl

    The only problem with the reasoning of the two commenters is that there are problems with STANDARD livestock “productions”. It was once accepted practice to conduct surgery on infants without anesthesia, to not allow people of different “races” to marry, and to keep slaves. Just because some people thought those things were okay did not make them so. Exposing the current accepted-by-some practices of livestock “production” [you mean like ‘product’, right?] will allow people who are not aware to make up their own minds about what ‘accepted’ practices they wish to support and which they do not. 30 seconds of battery chicken footage was enough to convince me that it’s worth paying more for real free range organic eggs & even, if necessary, not eating eggs any more — Big Ag wants to prevent you from seeing for yourself whether or not you agree. Should THEY be the ones who get to decide this for you?

  • Investigative journalism should not be against the law. Obviously, these legislators have no conscience, and support animal torture. I am tired of article after article reporting such abuse. As a chef, I only serve meat from verifiable meat sources that treat their animals with respect and subscribe to humane and ethical practices. As a frequent guest speaker for the San Francisco chapter of the American Culinary Federation, I can assure you that at future speeches this topic will be a priority to be discussed and debated.

  • Doc Mudd

    Well, yes, certainly.
    Far be it from “Ag” (“Big”, small or otherwise) to “chill” the contrived hate speech of any over-sheltered activist zealots.
    Long live one’s God-given elitist right to bitch-out and defame others with one’s mouth stuffed full of over-priced fashion food! This is America, afer all, is it not?

  • federal microbiologist

    Let’s see…
    ……in the aftermath of the undercover videotaping expose of the 4,000-animal Kamrar CAFO, owner / operator Iowa Select Farms assures us that All Is Well, because Anna Kerr Johnson, an Animal Science faculty member at Iowa State, will be investigating the conditions at the CAFO.
    Needless to say Johnson won’t be coming around to the CAFO unannounced, with a video camera running. That would of course ‘endanger animal health’.
    Is having Ann Kerr Johnson coming by to review the swine CAFO going to result in any real, substantive changes in the way the animals are handled in the future ?
    Johnson’s ISU website does not indicate whether she receives funding from the Ag industry, particularly the National Pork Producers, the Iowa Farm Bureau, the AMI, the NCBA, or other proponents of CAFOs and ‘modern agriculture’.
    Her publication listing does include studies on how many piglets get crushed by their [mother] sows in the confines of the gestation crates in swine confinement operations.
    (I’m not making this up, see ‘Applied Animal Behavior Science 2007, vol. 105, pp. 59 – 74. There is an entire sub-category of the swine confinement peer-reviewed journal literature devoted to ‘piglet crushing’).
    One of her publications (‘Transport losses in market weight pigs: Definitions, incidence and economic impact’, Professional Animal Scientist 2009, vol. 25, pp. 404 – 414) acknowledges support from the National Pork Board’s ‘Animal Welfare Committee’.
    Receiving financial support from CAFO proponents does not necessarily mean that Anna Kerr Johnson will be biased and partisan in how she reviews the operations at Kamrar. But I’m skeptical that she will deliver a report that conflicts with the viewpoint of the swine industry.
    Big Ag clearly wants to police itself…which means no policing at all, and no interference from those evil, granola-eating, hemp-fiber-wearing, vegan Commie ‘foodies’.

  • Kharn

    We’re not talking about sneaking pics of next year’s sports car design. We’re talking about our food supply. All manufacturers in this industry should have completely transparent operations, as it’s been proven over and over again that it can’t be trusted to govern its own ethics.

  • sleuther

    Mudd’s Motto:
    Long live one’s God-given elitist right to bitch-out and defame others! This is America, afer all, is it not?

  • dangermaus

    KSMeatGuy –
    How realistic is it to expect a $7-an-hour employee to report problems have previously been ignored by management? Not at all in a lot of cases. Lots of workers in the places fear reprisal by their managers (not to mention, for some, being turned over to the INS) if they complain about anything, much less report it to authorities.
    In this lawsuit-happy society we live in, it’s no wonder that these guys are trying to criminalize this kind of whistle-blowing, but the secrecy under which our food is grown and processed is a serious problem. Clearly there are large food processors (I’m not saying all, most, or even a big proportion of them) that intentionally cut corners. I wish I had an idea about how to address it that wouldn’t be worse than the problem itself, but I really don’t.
    Knowing your farmer, and shopping around for one that you think makes clean, safe processing a priority is probably the best thing you can do.

  • Doc Mudd

    Yeah, “know your farmer” – heh, heh, that should work OK.
    Just ask him/her “is clean, safe processing a priority for you?”
    He/she will reply with a resounding “Oh, YES!!!!!” and you shall have their “word” on it…and nothing more than that.
    Maybe these sacred small producers should also have cameras trained on them to detect when they pitch their manure too close to your veggies and to determine just how often and how thoroughly they wash their hands after relieving themselves and before groping your food. Yeah, sort of a live ‘foodie cam’ that catches every instance of nose-picking and marketing chicanery. Should be especially interesting to watch them recording transaction receipts and filling out their income taxes to make sure none of that green folding cash is accidentally unaccounted for at tax time, eh?

  • Steve

    Yeah, Muddd’s a a real insult comic, all right — without the comic part. Rather, the foodie cams are actually capturing the bored and low paid frustrated fast food workers who hate their jobs and the factory food system they’re stuck in.
    Anyone who disparages independent farmers obviously has not even a modicum of farming or even gardening experience. For the food we’re not growing ourselves I’ll go with the independent farmer any day — after all, they’re feeding themselves and their families the same good food they’re selling to others.
    One huge dirty secret of our faceless industrialized system is that our nation eats on the backs of legions of unseen exploited agricultural and food system workers who do everything from harvesting to processing to distributing to preparing and serving our daily food supply — often living in squalid and oppressive working conditions, with major pesticide exposures and detrimental health effects. For a peek into the destructive present-day tomato industry as an example, check out “Tomatoland” by Barry Estabrook…
    And all those shiny supermarket shelves not withstanding — Big Ag has a lot to hide. But the dirty secrets of industrialized food production are becoming more transparent to consumers and there’s no legislation possible that can begin to protect our exploitive agribusiness-as-usual.

  • Doc Mudd

    Oh, I dunno, Gilman. Sounds like more NOFA spin…I smell dung.
    Here’s a little camera work that maybe ought to be done more often, if ‘gotcha’ filming is the method of choice:
    Just the tip of the iceberg regarding the honor system of “small farmers” and their insulting marketing chicanery. It would be laughable if it weren’t so rampant, so obvious.

  • Steve

    I’m all for cleaning out fraud, where ever it exists — especially when unscrupulous vendors buy conventional produce at the wholesale market and sell it as home grown at a Farmers Market to make a buck. It’s unfair to the hard working local farmers who have to compete against re-sellers as well as to the consumer who is getting dubious quality stuff from who-knows-where….
    But is fraud rampant at Farmers Markets? Hardly. That’s just disinformation disseminated by Big Ag (and their shills) who are seeing more and more of their once locked-up sales going to buy Real Food at local markets.

  • dangermaus

    Oh Mudd,
    I don’t think many people have time to watch a “foodie cam” for verification that their farmer is following good practices. Certainly, most people aren’t qualified to know what to look for – I’m not. “Know your farmer” is about trust. If you can’t trust the people in your life, what’s life worth?
    You apparently really think that your contempt for any sort of alternative agriculture, or different ways of looking at food, or a desire to connect with the Earth via the food we eat is something worth sharing, despite the fact that no one seems to agree with you.
    It’s sad how you don’t see the fact that every posting that you make that gets commented on is treated with ridicule is a sign that you really could benefit from examining the way you look at topics discussed here. I feel sorry for people that have to deal with you in real life.

  • Doc Mudd

    Trust me, then, dangermaus.
    In every case, there exists a mundane fact-based reality, against which you lively dreamers freely voice your imaginative belief-based ‘alternatives’.
    The fact-based is my beat; I dutifully keep it before us all (as a landmark, a beacon of truth exposing and collapsing too-freely-spoken blind-faith prevarications of frothy, foamy organic fertilizer)…and I’ve never steered you wrong, nor will I, for I am selling nothing (unlike so many others here from the acronym crowd – NOFA, R-CALF, FARFA etc, etc, etc).
    Ah, just trust me. [whispered earnestly, hair slicked back, hand outstretched, leering my most charming farmers market grin]

  • Steve

    You can always trust the Mudddd, our resident hobby commentator, for an anti-alternative agriculture twist on any issue that strikes his/her fancy. The fact that the facts are not with him/her does not deter him/her one bit — his/her credibility has long gone out the window…..

  • Doc Mudd

    And that is the official NOFA policy talking point then, eh Gilman? It’s a little chilly toward the facts, wouldn’t you agree?
    Certainly, someone’s “credibility has long gone out the window”…or has been lost in the avalanche of frothy organic fertilizer blowing out from your NOFA policy desk.
    Oh, well. To hell with icy cold facts. Hi Ho, back to the fiefdom! Kumbaya, campers, kumbaya!!