States Crack Down On Animal Welfare Activists And Their Undercover Videos

Breeding sows in crates at a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods in 2010. The photo was shot by the Humane Society as part of an undercover investigation.

Breeding sows in crates at a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods in 2010. The photo was shot by the Humane Society as part of an undercover investigation. Humane Society/Associated Press hide caption

itoggle caption Humane Society/Associated Press

Some states are stiffening the punishment for activists who want to use undercover videos to expose conditions inside farms.

Just this week, the Iowa legislature passed a bill that would make it a crime to use false pretenses to gain access to a livestock operation to engage in activities not authorized by the owner.

If the governor signs the bill into law, Iowa will join Montana, North Dakota and Kansas in enacting what activists call "ag gag" laws, which criminalize undercover photography or video inside animal farms.

Several other states – including Illinois, Missouri, Utah, New York, Nebraska, Indiana and Minnesota – are considering similar legislation. That's a sure sign that farmers around the country feel that the steady stream of undercover videos released in the last few years has hurt the industry's image.

A few videos show farmworkers violently treating or neglecting hurt animals – behavior that constitutes illegal abuse. Many others simply depict everyday practices. But industry groups say farmers need protection from possible incursions by activists whose principal motivation may be to hurt their business, not report abuse.

"We have a number of activists that want to gain access to farms ... to take some films and make it look as dramatic as they possibly can, to affect the public," Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, told the agriculture news site Brownfield. His group supports the Iowa bill. "It could be they're there to damage the operation. We just need to keep those people out, and honest, responsible people in."

But animal welfare groups like Mercy for Animals and Compassion Over Killing, which have paid activists to go undercover to film in a variety of plants, say that animal producers who want to outlaw filming inside their plants do so because they have something to hide.

"We do undercover investigations to open up the doors, to shine a spotlight on a hidden world," Erica Meier, executive director of COK, tells The Salt. "Clearly, with these laws, the industry is trying to prevent people from seeing the realities. When they see them, they are shocked that animals are allowed to be treated this way."

In a recent video, Meier's group documented Iowa farm workers castrating baby male pigs without painkillers, and adult sows confined inside gestation and farrowing crates. "These conditions are standard," says Meier. "But just because it's standard doesn't mean it's humane."

Compassion Over Killing/YouTube

The industry accepts that some standard practices may have to change to assuage the public's concerns. Just last month, Nancy Shute reported that McDonald's said it would require its U.S. pork suppliers to phase out the use of gestational crates for pregnant sows. Smithfield, the nation's largest hog producer, says it's in the process of moving pregnant sows on company farms from individual gestation stalls into group housing arrangements for the animals' welfare.

And as Dan Charles reported, the Humane Society has teamed up with the United Egg Producers to draft a law around more humane cages for chickens. Under the proposed guidelines, the chickens would get twice as much space, plus perches and "nest boxes" where they could lay their eggs.

While the anti-undercover video legislation has the support of many state farm bureaus and animal producer councils, some national groups say the legislation may be counter-productive.

"We are big fans of more transparency. And we understand that farmers are concerned [about the videos]. But we are concerned that passing legislation to ban cameras really is not the right approach," says Charlie Arnot, president of the Center for Food Integrity, a group with many livestock industry members.

Arnot noted that one way farmers can make their operations more transparent is by opening up their barns, either with farm tours or live video feeds, like this one on the website of JS West, an egg producer in California.