Factory Farms vs. Video Activists: Who Will Control What We See?

Iowa's attempt to ban undercover videographers from documenting animal cruelty is merely the latest battle in an ongoing all-out war

Next time you drive through Iowa farm country, you may want to put away your camera. Earlier this year, the state proposed a new piece of legislation, House File 589, that would make it a crime to videotape, audio record, or in any way document a crop or animal facility without the prior consent of the owner. Anyone who produces, possesses, or distributes an unauthorized recording would face hefty fines, jail time, or both. The proposed law, an amendment to Iowa Code 717A, passed the Iowa House by a wide margin. It recently stalled in the Senate, but it will most likely be taken up again months from now in the state's next legislative session: as Iowa Representative Jim Lykam recently noted, "I'm sure that somebody will try to see if they can resurrect it." Most importantly, the underlying issue—industrial agriculture's fear that activists will continue to expose its practices—hasn't gone away.

Although HF 589 has been decried by animal welfare, food transparency, and civil rights groups, it has galvanized large-scale agricultural entities—from multinational corporations like Monsanto and DuPont to influential statewide organizations like the Iowa Poultry Association. The measure is a backlash against the undercover sting operations that constantly threaten factory farmers and the commodity crop growers who supply their feed. In recent years, activists have documented routine abuse and horrifying conditions at large farms in Iowa, Texas, Minnesota, California, Maine, Ohio, and elsewhere. Easily disseminated through the Internet, these startling and often graphic videos can result in independent audits, fines, and even criminal charges.

Recreational abuse is something the meat industry can afford to do without. But without the institutional cruelty of the factory farm model, the industry would not exist.

Iowa State Senator Matt McCoy, who has opposed HF 589, told me that recent legislative changes in California explain why Iowan producers feel so threatened. When 63 percent of Californians voted for Proposition 2 in 2008, they ensured a better future for their poultry: by 2015, all laying hens in California must have enough room to fully extend their limbs or wings without touching cage walls or one another. "The poultry industry doesn't want to see the same mandates in Iowa," McCoy said. "They see this as an offensive attack, and that they have to protect their industry." Considering that strong public support for Proposition 2 was garnered, in large part, by a media campaign that compared photos of animals in industrial farms with animals raised in less confining conditions, it's easy to see why large-scale operators think HF 589 might help diffuse growing public resistance to factory farming.

Iowa's proposed law is part of a broader move to silence the growing din of undercover factory farm videos. This year, legislatures in Florida and Minnesota also proposed anti-surveillance laws. The concerted nature of this campaign is evident in the legislation itself: HF 589 and its sister bill in Minnesota, SF 1118, use nearly identical language. Florida's proposal is terser in style but virtually the same in content. According to McCoy, all three bills began with Iowa's powerful agricultural interest groups—people like Don Peterson, an influential lobbyist for Iowa's Farm Bureau, who traveled on behalf of similar legislation elsewhere. "We've seen high-profile, visible lobbyists," he said, "and they've made efforts to work this in several states." The bills in Florida and Minnesota died without a vote, but McCoy feels the odds are better in Iowa, where the legislative push began, and where well-heeled lobbyists have strong government ties.

I asked HF 589's chief sponsor, Iowa House Representative Annette Sweeney, if Iowa's farmers have something to hide. She insisted that the legislation's primary purpose is to ensure that farm workers report abuse responsibly. "It's a bill to encourage reporting," she told me, not obscure it. If someone witnesses cruelty at a farm, she said, that individual should complain immediately; undercover videographers, who stand by and watch, dodge the obligation to report criminal behavior in a timely fashion. "If you think your supervisor's not listening," she said, "there are other solutions that are prescribed by law—you can go to your local sheriff, veterinarian, deputy sheriff, the USDA, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship."

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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