Commentary: Video protection rejection

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Of all places where a political observer might predict that farm-favorable legislation would fare well at the state level, Iowa would be one state at or near the top of the list.

The Hawkeye State leads the country in corn (2.37 billion bushels) and soybean (439 million bushels) production, annually raises more than 20 million hogs, 4 million cattle, 66.9 million chickens, 4 million turkeys and 200,000 sheep and reaps billions from farm gate revenues and food processing.

But if you assumed that with production agriculture so vital to the state’s economy, a bill to protect farmers would sail through its legislature, you’d be wrong.

An effort to outlaw the undercover recording of animal abuse in livestock operations appears to have stalled in Iowa and several other states, for that matter—with the pushback is coming from citizens and activists complaining that the proposals were aimed at protecting an industry that doesn’t exhibit enough concern for farm animal welfare.

According to the Associated Press and other news reports, a bill introduced earlier this year to criminalize the actions of activists who capture unauthorized hidden videos appeared to be headed for approval in the Iowa Legislature.Proposed penalties included fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years in prison.

“I feel it is wrong to absolutely lie to get a job to try to defame the employer,” Rep. Annette Sweeney, a farmer and Republican legislator who sponsored the bill, told reporters at the time.

However, after being passed by the Iowa House, the measure has stalled in the Senate and appears dead for this session.

Similar measures also have failed in Minnesota, Florida and New York.

For producers, the issue is clear: Virtually everyone who hires on (usually under false pretenses) at a farm, growout facility or packing plant with the intention of either staging or heavily editing secret video footage has only one aim: To embarrass and discredit the operators, hopefully to the extent that legal liability ensues.

Of course, on occasion the abuses they record have been sickeningly graphic:

  • In 2009, undercover video at a Pennsylvania hog farm showed workers there picking up baby pigs by their ears and hind legs and throwing them across the barn.
  • Last summer, secretly recorded footage at an Ohio dairy farm showed cows being kicked and poked with pitchforks; the incident resulted in one worker being charged with 12 counts of cruelty to animals.
  • And just a few months ago, yet another graphic video from a cattle ranch in Texas depicted workers beating and kicking sick and injured calves, standing on their necks and ribs and throwing them onto piles todie.

And that’s in addition to the infamous footage captured at the former Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in California, where HSUS operatives recorded workers bulldozing downer cattle with the business end of a forklift, a clip that got USDA to revoke inspection approval for a company that was one of the nation’s largest supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program.

Much of the footage for those and other similar incidents really didn’t need editing to enhance the gruesome factor.

Livestock producers make the case that activists’ ultimate goal is to convince Americans to forgo meat eating altogether.

“The [activist] agenda is clear and basically anti-livestock,” said Bruce Berven, a staffer with the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. “They are basically just using this issue to promote their vegan-slash-vegetarian agenda. There’s a bigger war going on than this issue.”

Ultimately, though, the legislation in Iowa and elsewhere got derailed, partly as a result of opposition from the Humane Society of the United States and other anti-industry groups, but partly because ordinary consumers simply can’t stomach the treatment animals receive in the video clips activists make sure get wide exposure.

When a bill to help protect producers and farmers from being blindsided by undercover videotaping gets defeated in Iowa, it’s not a good sign.

But until the industry does a better job collectively of training its work force to behave in ways that won’t get companies shut down, activists will be all too willing to do that job for them.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator


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Stu Armstrong    
Pemberton BC  |  June, 16, 2011 at 12:47 AM

Well, if you have nothing to hide what are you worried about unless you run a factory farm.

Keith    
Ohio  |  June, 16, 2011 at 07:54 AM

I worry about people who "set up" a situation. I worry about people who change the lighting or the angle or any of a number of photo techniques to make something appear different than it actually is. I worry about someone who shows something such as "blunt trama" which when done correctly is acceptable but not the prettiest site. I worry that if someone wants to find something - by being there every day for months there will be something that they can blow up and I worry that 2 months of pictures can be condensed to a 30 second video. I do not worry about gross abuse because I as a producer also want it stopped, but it bothers me that it is used to paint everyone with the same brush and it bothers me that posting the video becomes more important than stopping the abuse.

Severson    
Oregon  |  June, 16, 2011 at 06:28 PM

Keith: if the shots are staged, investigations would determine that and nothing would come of it. (Plus that WOULD be grounds for a defamation case against the activists.) However, I would hope and pray there's a world of difference between the proper method of taking out a cow for slaughter versus running it over with a forklift. Properly taking out a pig versus throwing it against a wall repeatedly. That's just indefensible.

George    
Earth  |  June, 16, 2011 at 06:29 PM

Rep. Annette Sweeney approves of the brutal beating of dairy cows.

Erik    
CA  |  June, 16, 2011 at 07:54 PM

Set-up to stab a cow with a pitchfork? What kind of games are these employees playing? I love eating meat as much as the next guy and I don't think the whole industry is full of people who abuse animals, but obviously there are at least a rare few and they should not be legally protected. Cheers to the Hawkeye State.

lindsey    
IN  |  June, 17, 2011 at 01:59 AM

I am disappointed Dan Murphy focused on animal rights, while that should have been only a supporting issue. I am 200% for animal rights, and anti-cruelty; however...the #1 issue to focus on is the BIG corporations who don't want the public to know how their food is being processed. The conditions of the entire process from start to finish is not only inhumane but its not healthy for any living being to consume. The livestock are being pumped with antibiotics, and steroids (just to name a few) in addition to the cattle being forced to survive off a sustenance which they are not physiological capable of digesting. These medicines, and chemicals are then naturally passed on to us, we are already aware of how it is effecting us. Not to mention, the long term problem of becoming immune to antibiotics. E-coili contamination is the result of the cattle eating grain or corn, and we all know that is also widespread. Most humans are concerned about themselves foremost, not the humane treatment of their dinner. Focus on the more pressing facts, then the animal rights.

Nicko    
California  |  June, 17, 2011 at 10:34 AM

The big problem with this legislation was that the sponsors of the bill were not being entirely straight with the public about the motivation. They presented it as protection against activists with agendas but the bill would have criminalized any sort of whistle-blowing. Most small farmers who care about their animals don't worry about people filming, precisely because they care for their animals. Most factory farms only care about their profits and they are scared stiff people will find out about that the sort of corners they cut to make sure their meet production makes as much profit as possible, with little or no regard to the wellbeing of the animals. This law was to protect big business from the exposure of uncomfortable truths, not to protect farmers.


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