Four years ago, undercover video recorded workers on forklifts forcing “downer” cows into slaughter at the Hallmark and Westland meat plant in Chino, CA, which at the time was a top supplier to the National School Lunch program.
The sting, by the Humane Society of the United States, put Hallmark and Westland out of business. When USDA saw the undercover video, it demanded the largest beef recall in U.S. history and it immediately cut off Hallmark and Westland from the lucrative school lunch business.
The damaged meat going to the National School Lunch program was also the subject of a $150 million lawsuit against Hallmark and Westland.
Other animal rights organizations have pulled off their own stings since the big one at Chino. These undercover investigations usually involve sending someone in to get a job with the company being targeted.
Until now, whenever one of these undercover videos was released, it usually meant whoever owned the animal facility where abuses were filmed was in big trouble.
But not any more in Iowa. Within a few hours on Wednesday, the Iowa Senate took up an “ag-gag” bill, made some amendments, and passed it on a 40-10 vote. The House then immediately took up the Senate changes and approved them without debate on a 69-28 vote.
The bill, House File 589, now on Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s desk, is all but certain to be signed into law, and it will be the first “ag-gag” law in America, says Nathan Runkle, executive director of Chicago-based Mercy for Animals (MFA), an animal rights group that has been active in Iowa.
The new law, if it passes constitutional muster, could turn the tables on animal rights groups doing these undercover investigations. It gives Iowa’s county sheriffs a long list of possible violations to charge once it is disclosed that any filming or recording was done without the permission of the animal facility owner.
If the Iowa law had been in effect in California in 2008, Hallmark and Westland would have been able to go to court claiming status as victims of “animal facility tampering” for an “amount equaling three times all the actual and consequential damages” against “the person causing the damages.”
“This flawed and misdirected legislation could set a dangerous precedent nationwide by throwing shut the doors to industrial factory farms and allowing animal abuse, environmental violations, and food contamination issues to flourish undetected, unchallenged and unaddressed,” says Runkle. “This bill is bad for consumers, who want more, not less, transparency in production of their food.”
Some of the more likely unconstitutional language was removed from the bill, but Runkle told Food Safety News the intent of the legislation remains exactly the same – “to shield animal abusers from public scrutiny and prosecute investigators who dare to expose animal cruelty, environmental violations, dangerous working conditions or food safety concerns.”
Animal rights organizations like HSUS and MFA – working with investigators to expose violations – could themselves be prosecuted under the new Iowa law. And, the law does not just apply to animal facilities but also any “crop operation.”
Recent investigations by MFA in Iowa are certainly among those getting the attention of lawmakers. In 2011, the Chicago animal rights group turned its cameras on a large Iowa egg farm owned by Sparboe, and an Iowa Select Farms pig operation.
It found over-crowding in battery cages, some containing dead hens, on the egg farm, and at the pig operation sows being penned in confinement cages and testicles being removed from piglets without painkillers.
And in 2009, MFA exposed the Iowa-based Hy-Line Hatchery’s practice of throwing more than 150,000 live male chicks into grinding machines every day.
Runkle says passage of the “ag-gag” law proves Iowa agriculture “has a lot to hide.”
“This law is un-American and a broad government overreach. It seeks to shield animal abusers from public scrutiny and prosecute the brave whistleblowers who dare to speak out against animal cruelty, environmental pollution and corporate corruption.”
The new law shields animal abusers from public scrutiny, makes criminals out of those who dare to expose cruelty to farm animals and threatens the consumers’ right to know, according to the MFA.
Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of HSUS, has written Gov. Branstad, urging the Republican governor to veto HF 589.
“The intent of this bill is simple: shield animal agribusiness from public scrutiny by punishing whistleblowers and protecting animal abusers,” wrote Pacelle. “By signing this bill into law, animal agribusiness will have unbridled and unchecked power over worker safety, public health and animal welfare.”
Pacelle said the Iowa Senate and House rushed the bill through at a speed rarely found in the legislative process. Normally, he said, deliberations of such consequence take weeks, or at least several days.
Iowa’s sudden passage of an “ag-gag” law has brought together opposition to these state measures by a broad spectrum of national organizations, including animal rights, civil liberties, public health, food safety, public health, environmental and other groups.
Many see HF589 as an unconstitutional infringement on First Amendment rights.
Ag-gag bills were introduced in four states last year, including Iowa. None of those passed. This year, ag-gag bills have been introduced in Utah, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Florida and New York.
The Florida bill was defeated. Except for Iowa, the others are pending.
The Wednesday night passage of the Iowa ag-gag bill came with support from some of the state’s most powerful agricultural lobbyists including: The Institute for Cooperatives, The Agribusiness Association of Iowa, Iowa Select Farms, Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, Iowa Dairy Association, Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn Growers Association and Monsanto Co.
Under the new law, anyone making “a false statement or representation” as part of an application of employment at an animal facility could, after a first conviction, be charged with a class D felony.
To produce a record of image or sound without the owner’s permission is defined as the new crime of “animal facility interference.”