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.

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."

If timely whistleblowing through official channels can swiftly halt problematic behavior, why use subversive methods like undercover documentation? Because the "see something, say something" model, which Sweeney touts as a kind of agricultural Hippocratic Oath, is both impractical and impossible.

First, it's naïve to assume that supervisors are unaware of flagrant violations when they happen; behavior of this kind, if it's occurring at all, likely has tacit if not explicit approval. But let's imagine a conscientious worker could find a sympathetic authority figure to talk to—if not a supervisor, then a local law enforcement official or federal regulator. Even then, stark linguistic, cultural, and legal barriers exist. The most recent (2005) National Agricultural Workers Survey reports that 78 percent of all crop workers in the U.S. are foreign-born, and 53 percent aren't legally authorized to work in the country. 44 percent reported that they could not speak English "at all"; 81 percent reported that Spanish was their native language. The predominance of foreign-born workers in livestock and meat processing facilities is similarly well-documented. These workers remain invisible as a condition of their employment—and by speaking out, they risk loss of income, termination, retaliation, or deportation.

The sort of reporting that Sweeney proposes—the compulsory, off-the-bat kind—also makes it difficult to demonstrate systemic violations at problem farms. "In the past, we've tried that," Dan Mathews, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told me, "and then officials say, 'oh, that was an isolated incident.'" A solid case requires a substantial documentation—which takes patience and time. "Law enforcement has advised us to collect thorough evidence over several weeks, instead of focusing on single incidents," Mathews said. "That way, we can demonstrate that management routinely turns a blind eye—or, as we've often found, participates in the abuse. If you can't show a pattern, you can't make a larger case." He cites the instance in which PETA worked with local law enforcement in Green County, Iowa. The organization's protracted campaign of undercover documentation led to multiple counts of animal cruelty violations at a Hormel plant.

But HF 589 is not really about the illegal, unnecessary abuse—the neck-wringing and hog-kicking and calf-bludgeoning captured so routinely by undercover cameras. Sweeney's focus on illegal animal abuse and reporting protocol is a rhetorical move that obscures HF 589's true purpose: to maintain widespread public ignorance about everyday factory farm practices, which can be horrifying in even their most benign incarnations. Recreational abuse is something the industry can afford to do without. But without the institutional cruelty of the factory farm model, the industry would not exist.

If legislation like HF 589—renamed SF 431 in the Senate—ever passes into law in Iowa, the state's agricultural sector will be beyond civilian reproach. But consumers need to know what happens behind the aluminum walls of confinement sheds in order to make informed choices—and, considering how off-limits most farm operations are to the public, video is one of the only ways to make that information available. When I show my University of Iowa classes the documentary Food, Inc., they're aghast. Despite the ubiquity of industrially raised, grown, and processed food, few if any students have ever seen footage of status-quo operations at industrial facilities before.

Truck stops throughout Iowa sell t-shirts that say "What happens in the cornfield stays in the cornfield." Let's hope this doesn't become, literally, the case.

Images: CALM Action/flickr