Why they want to ban photos of farm animals in Iowa

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May 1, 2011 - 7:00pm

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. In Iowa, it may soon be worth five years in jail.

Livestock operations in the state are behind a bill that would make secretly taking photographs or videos of farm animals or possessing such images a felony. They say the bill is needed to stop activists from misrepresenting themselves to get jobs in large livestock facilities with the intention of harming the industry.

"This bill is an accountability bill," said Joe Miller, a lawyer for Rose Acre Farms, the second largest egg producer in the country, with farms inIowa, Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina.

But Paul Shapiro, a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States, said the bill and others like it are an attempt to shield America's industrial food production system from public scrutiny.

"The exposes that have been done at Iowa's factory farms and others have been done perfectly legally," Shapiro said. "And they've resulted in convictions for criminal animal cruelty; they've resulted in meat recalls for food safety problems, closures of slaughterhouses, and disciplinary actions on (U.S. Department of Agriculture) inspectors not doing their jobs."

Rose Acre Farms has firsthand experience with undercover activists.

In February 2010, a man associated with the Humane Society got a job at a Rose Acre operation in Stuart, Iowa a giant egg-laying facility with six barns housing about a million chickens.

The activist worked there for two weeks. Three months later, the Humane Society held a press conference and splashed a video on the internet showing chickens living in cramped cages, and some dead birds whose bodies were left so long they'd been mummified.

The Humane Society said some scenes were filmed at Rose Acre Farms by that employee of two weeks.

"But Rose Acre farm manager Andrew Kaldenberg said while the video did show some footage of cages at Rose Acres, none of the abuses shown occurred there. The company invited the press out to its Iowa barns within hours of the video being released.

"We welcome reporters, what have we got to hide?" Kaldenberg said. "If we're not treating our animals right, they're not going to produce. If they're not going to produce, we're out of business."

Kaldenberg said that the way his farm is run is perfectly legal and that's why the undercover activist never reported abuse. Instead, Kaldenberg said, the motives were to promote an agenda vehemently against how the industry produces food having thousands of birds living in row after row of small cages.

"Some people don't really get a grasp of where food comes from, how things are really produced," Kaldenberg said. "It just doesn't come from the store. There's something behind that to get it there. And for people to pay the price they're paying now, this is how it's done. And done safely, that's the key thing right there. "

Rose Acre Farms and other large chicken, hog and cattle organizations say the Iowa bill isn't about stopping whistleblowers from reporting abuse; it's about keeping people who misrepresent their true purpose from getting hired.

"People are trying to characterize the livestock folks as trying to hide things; we're not. We don't want any animal to be abused. If it's truly a case where a person thinks abuse is occurring, that needs to be reported immediately, not six weeks done the road or months later in video released for PR efforts to raise money for an organization," said Kevin Vinchattle, executive director of the Iowa Egg Council.

But without undercover videos, activists say, their claims wouldn't be taken seriously

A similar bill in Florida was recently amended to make taking secret photos of farms a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony.

The Iowa bill faces opposition in the state Senate. Sen. Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, said it's a clear violation of first amendment rights to the freedom of expression, and it would set a dangerous precedent.

"The (American) Farm Bureau spends millions and millions of dollars every year lobbying for bills like this," McCoy said. "The industry itself is a multibillion dollar industry and they would definitely like to see this bill passed, because they view animal welfare groups and individuals that take undercover video and release it to the public as threat to their livelihood."

The legislative battle will be fought about banning photographing animal farms, but behind it looms a bigger debate about the definitions of the standards of what's humane.

Kathleen Masterson reports from Iowa for Harvest Public Media, an agriculture-reporting project involving six NPR member stations in the Midwest. For more stories about farm and food, check out Harvest Public Media

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