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A New Iowa Law Would Criminalize Undercover Investigations at Farms (Again)

The state's pork industry hasn't given up yet.

Two months ago, animal welfare groups hailed the end of Iowa's ag-gag law, which made it illegal to record inside agricultural operations like slaughterhouses and livestock confinements without the owner's permission. But they may have celebrated too soon: The state's House and Senate passed a new ag-gag bill on Tuesday, which would again criminalize the kind of undercover investigations that have exposed Midwestern farmers for animal cruelty.

Although some Iowan Democrats objected to the bill, it had broad support among Republicans, who emphasize the need to protect the state's livestock industry, especially amid growing biosecurity concerns. Iowa produces the most pork of any state, with one-third of the nation's pigs, and exports totaling more than $1.1 billion in 2017. Farmers have historically viewed undercover activists as a threat (perhaps rightly so; six workers at an Iowan farm were charged with criminal livestock neglect after a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals investigation in 2008).

Meanwhile, critics argue these bills scare off whistleblowers who shed light on abuses—and they've been ruled unconstitutional in several states. "This bill gives the middle finger to free speech, consumer protection, food safety, and animal welfare," Democratic state Representative Liz Bennett said in an interview with the Des Moines Register. As Pacific Standard has reported:

Proponents say these investigations have become one of the most useful tools for keeping mismanaged farms in check: Many have resulted in significant improvements in animal welfare, prompting boycotts and bankruptcies of the offending facilities, convictions of employees and owners, statewide ballot initiatives banning practices like gestation crates, and the largest meat recall in United States history, according to Michigan State University's Animal Legal and Historical Center.

In Iowa, for example, PETA and other groups found instances of workers "hurling small piglets onto a concrete floor" and beating them with metal rods, court documents show. The backlash caused producers to panic: Lynn Becker, chief operating officer of LB Pork, referred to one PETA video as "the 9/11 event of animal care in our industry," according to the progressive non-profit group Center for Constitutional Rights.

As of January, six states had ag-gag laws in place. If Governor Kim Reynolds signs this bill as expected, that number will be back up to seven. The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which led the legal challenges against the state's 2012 law, has already indicated it will take the same tack with the next one. "Like the 2012 laws we were able to strike down in federal court, these bills unconstitutionally violate free speech rights and intimidate journalists from investigating ag facilities," the ACLU of Iowa said in a statement before the bill's passing.

Under Iowa's law, undercover investigations would be criminalized as "agricultural production facility trespass," which would be treated as a serious or aggravated misdemeanor, depending on the offense. According to the bill's text, "trespass" includes using deception to gain access to an operation "with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury to the agricultural production facility’s operations."

Historically, some activist groups have broken into farms, vandalized equipment, and stolen farm animals to raise in what they view as a safer environment. But lesser offenses also qualify: People would be penalized for going uncover as employees (which, as state Senator Herman Quirmbach noted during the vote, was famously done in Upton Sinclair's influential 1906 novel The Jungle).