‘Boycott Iowa’: latest twist in legal tussle between animal campaigners and US farmers

A US governor has signed off legislation to prop up controversial “ag-gag” laws in Iowa, just months after a federal court declared them unconstitutional.

In retaliation, animal rights activists are calling on their supporters to boycott the state as a vacation destination.

The legislation, which will make it illegal to use “deception” to gain access to an agricultural facility, was signed by Governor Kim Reynolds on Thursday, in a case that is being watched as yet another step in a long-running battle between consumers, activists, and farmers.

The oldest example of these laws, designed to criminalise undercover investigations into agricultural activities, dates back to 1991. But the issue really came to a head around 2010, when mobile phone cameras became ubiquitous and it seemed that armies of undercover investigators were heading into industrial agricultural facilities to document conditions.

Investigators made dozens of videos highlighting everything from piglets being hurled into pens to horse handlers burning the ankles of Tennessee Walkers with chemicals. Occasionally the videosresulted in criminal charges against individual employees at agricultural facilities, including a worker at a North Carolina chicken farm who was charged with cruelty in 2015, after a video showed him throwing and stomping on chickens.

Under pressure from agriculture lobbyists, states from Utah to South Carolina began passing legislation to protect the farm industry. Some laws banned taking video or photographs in agriculture facilities without permission; others, including Iowa’s, made it illegal to get an agricultural job under false pretences.

North Carolina’s law, passed in 2015, prohibited people from taking unauthorised video in all workplaces – which drew opposition from those seeking to monitor nursing homes and veterans’ care organisations, as well as from civil liberties groups and animal rights activists.

In most states, no one has ever been prosecuted under the ag-gag laws. Instead, the investigations have simply stopped, said Matthew Liebman, director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

“These laws chill investigations before they even take place,” said Liebman, whose group has challenged laws in Iowa and four other states. “In Iowa, in the years leading up to the ag-gag legislation, there were maybe 10 to 12 investigations. In the five years past, there have been zero. Any reputable organisation is not going to put an employee in danger of jail time.”

But then campaigners began to push back: the law in Iowa was overturned in January, and similar laws have been overturned recently in Utah and Idaho, while challenges to the laws in North Carolina and Kansas are winding their way through the courts.

“Ag-gag laws: dumbest thing they could have ever done,” said the well-known industry animal treatment consultant Temple Grandin in an interview published on Grist. “That just makes you look guilty. Why are they passing laws to make it a crime to videotape something?”

Kay Johnson Smith, president of the farm advocacy group Animal Agriculture Alliance, said the fact that the laws have been portrayed in the media as “ag-gag laws” has caused them to backfire. Industry officials prefer to call them “farm protection legislation”.

“It’s not about keeping silent,” she said. “It’s not about stopping investigations. It’s about protecting the farming industry.”

Johnson Smith and others in the farming industry acknowledge that the recent court losses probably signal the death knell for stopping animal rights investigations.

“There is more of an awareness by farmers that they need to be more transparent about how they handle their animals than they used to be,” said Dal Grooms, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Pork Producers Association. “They used to think ‘nobody cares about us.’ Now they know they need to tell their stories.”

The industry is making efforts to respond to charges of inhumane treatment of animals. For example, poultry producer Purdue Farms has introduced a new “animal care” programme to improve the welfare of the chickens it raises. The programme includes new measures to make sure the chickens are free from hunger, thirst, discomfort, disease and distress. It is checked by regular third-party audits, which then are made public.

‘As consumers become more aware, there is an incentive for companies to try to ensure customers that they are treating their animals well.’

‘As consumers become more aware, there is an incentive for companies to try to ensure customers that they are treating their animals well.’ Photograph: John Gress/Getty Images

The animal welfare group Mercy for Animals (MFA) said: “At heart, these bills seek to insulate the worst facilities in the industry from the consequences of their actions by depriving Iowans of their right to make informed choices about the very food they eat.” Opponents have also pointed out that the new legislation is likely to face similar costly legal challenges that taxpayers will have to foot.

In the weeks since the Iowa law was overturned, MFA has placed ads looking to hire new undercover investigators in the state, according to an article in the Des Moines Register. Since the new legislation was signed, the group has called up on its supporters to boycott the state. “People who care about animal rights, who don’t want abusers protected, won’t be visiting Iowa,” said David Matulewicz-Crowley, legal advocacy counsel for MFA.

Alex Hershaft, founding president of Farm Animal Rights Movement, which promotes veganism, said he doubted that wrangling over ag-gag laws would make much difference to the future of the animal rights movement.

“There have been a lot of undercover investigations and we already have all the pictures and descriptions (of animal cruelty on farms) that anyone would have a stomach for,” he said. “The next steps will be the development of new plant-based foods – and that is going very well. That will be the best hope that animals have ever had.”


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