Iowa's governor is set to sign a bill that animal rights activists say could cripple their efforts to expose cruelty on factory farms, and that agricultural interests hope will serve as a template for new laws around the country to protect farmers from undercover cameras.
Recent undercover investigations of animal abuse on factory farms, including an expose of an Iowa egg producer by "20/20," have relied on hidden camera video from activists who have taken jobs at the farms. The so-called "ag gag" bill that passed the Iowa Senate Tuesday makes it a crime for anyone applying for a job at a farm to lie about being a member of an animal rights group. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad is expected to sign the bill before the end of the week.
Mercy for Animals, which has shot undercover footage at chicken, turkey, pig and dairy farms around the country, has joined with 26 other groups, including the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the U.S., to oppose the Iowa bill and similar laws under consideration in seven other states. A statement from the coalition called the "ag gag" bills "a wholesale assault on many fundamental values" and a threat to health, safety and freedom of the press.
"This flawed and misdirected legislation," said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, "could set a dangerous precedent nationwide by throwing shut the doors to industrial factory farms and allowing animal abuse, environmental violations, and food contamination issues to flourish undetected, unchallenged, and unaddressed."
An ABC News investigation that aired last November showed video recorded by a Mercy for Animals activist who worked undercover at one of the nation's largest egg producers, Sparboe Farms, located in Iowa. Wearing a hidden camera, he recorded unsanitary conditions and repeated acts of cruelty on chickens.
After the investigation, which aired on "20/20" and "World News with Diane Sawyer," Sparboe's major customers – McDonald's and Target – cancelled contracts with the egg producer. Several grocery chains followed suit and the Food and Drug Administration launched an investigation into conditions found there.
"Without undercover investigations, there are oftentimes no effective watchdogs protecting animals from egregious cruelty in these facilities," said Runkle. "Iowa legislators should be ashamed of themselves for bowing to pressure from corporate interests while turning a blind eye to American consumers and animal abuse."
Supporters of the Iowa bill said it would promote "transparency." In a statement, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill said, "In a post 9/11 world, transparency is important for farmers and consumers alike. Responsible farmers take good care of their land and livestock and want to employ honest, hardworking people that have the welfare of their livestock as their top priority."
Sen. Joe Seng, D.-Davenport, who helped write the bill that passed the Iowa Senate 40 to 10 on Tuesday, told ABC News the bill would help protect animals from outsiders who could bring in disease. "Here's a commercial enterprise intent on bio-security and here comes someone (who gets in) under false pretenses and screws up your whole system. That should be criminal."
The bill makes it a criminal offense for a potential employee to answer untruthfully if a farm owner asks whether the applicant is a member of a certain group, such as an animal-rights organization. "I can sleep at night," said Seng, a veterinarian, "knowing we are protecting an industry."
Seng also said he hoped the Iowa bill could be "a template for the whole United States." Similar legislation is also pending in New York, Minnesota, Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Nebraska and Utah.
A version of the bill that passed the Iowa House in 2011 made it illegal to possess or distribute undercover audio or video recordings. The Iowa Attorney General's office advised legislators that the ban on recording would make the law vulnerable to Constitutional challenges. The laws under consideration in some other states, however, still contain language banning recording.
Animal rights groups said the actual purpose of the bill is to protect factory farms. "The intent of this bill is simple: shield animal agribusiness from public scrutiny by punishing whistleblowers and protecting animal abusers," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States in a letter urging Gov. Branstad not to sign. "By signing this bill into law, animal agribusiness will have unbridled and unchecked power over worker safety, public health and animal welfare."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which is not part of the coalition that includes Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society, also opposes the "ag gag" bills. Actress Katherine Heigl, a longtime supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), sent a letter to every member of the state senate in Utah, where she now lives, pleading for defeat of the bill pending before that legislature.
"As animals cannot defend themselves, the public must maintain its right to document illegal cruel practices in order to alert law enforcement to (their) existence," Heigl wrote. "Please don't impede law enforcement by passing this terrible bill."