DES MOINES -- Rural lawmakers and farm interests are fighting back against anti-agriculture individuals or group members who seek employment under false pretenses so they can film livestock-related activities in hopes of disparaging the industry's image.
Legislative panels in the House and the Senate approved measures Wednesday seeking to create criminal and civil penalties for anyone convicted of tampering or interfering with property associated with a livestock or crop operation.
The companion bills also prohibit a person from committing fraud by obtaining access to a livestock or crop operation by supplying false information for the purpose of committing an act not authorized by the owner.
The interference charge would include producing, possessing or distributing an audio or visual record which reproduces an image or sound occurring on or in the location.
Penalties range from an aggravated misdemeanor for a first conviction of the fraud provision up to a Class C felony carrying a 10-year prison term for a tampering conviction related to damaging property, committing theft, killing or injuring an animal or crop, or disrupting operations that result in losses of more than $100,000 for the owner.
Backers say the legislation is needed in the wake of a growing number of incidents where animal-rights groups or others have produced "gotcha" videos depicting inhumane conditions - some of which they say have been "staged" by individuals working together where one person creates the objectionable condition for another person to film.
"I think the intent of the bill is spot on," said Rep. Brian Quirk, D-New Hampton. "These people need to be dealt with. They're terrorists and this is wrong. These producers' rights are being trampled when they're taken advantage of in this way. If we can clamp down on this kind of practice, I think it is warranted."
However, Paul Shapiro, spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, called the approach flawed and a "draconian" attempt to silence whistleblowers that expose instances of animal cruelty and keep problems secret rather than initiate reforms to correct abusive practices.
"The agribusiness industry should be trying to root out animal cruelty, not trying to make it harder to expose," he said.
Rep. Annette Sweeney,
R-Alden, said there is concern over people signing employment agreements promising to report anything improper in the course of their duties, but then they either don't report a violation or cooperate in committing an infraction to make it appear that animals are being abused. She said the change is intended to also address situations where someone may intentionally sabotage a crop.
"Anybody who comes and works in a livestock facility, we want them to be on the up and up because we value our animals," said Sweeney, who operates a livestock business.
Kevin Vinchattle, chief executive officer of the Iowa Poultry Association, said he views it as a fraudulent business practice to attempt to gain access to a livestock facility using false pretenses for the purpose of producing a potentially damaging image of the industry.
"When those videos get out, you get calls and letters - the facility does, we do - and people think that's the way it is. In reality, it's not. Things can be manipulated and misrepresented," Vinchattle said. He said the problem is not just happening in Iowa.
Sen. Sandy Greiner, R-Keota, one of 11 Senate Agriculture Committee members who voted for Senate File 341 on Wednesday, said she did not think the bill went far enough.
She wanted it to apply to county fairs, rodeos and other situations involving livestock.
"I think Iowans have had enough. We don't tolerate those kinds of shenanigans," Greiner said. "We have people who will go to those extremes and personally abuse animals in order to make a point and try to bring an industry down. Something has to be done to stop it."