DES MOINES, Iowa – Iowa became the first state Friday to make it a crime to surreptitiously get into a farming operation to record video of animal abuse.
Republican Gov. Terry Branstad signed the law despite protests, letters and campaigns launched on Twitter and Facebook by animal welfare groups that have used secretly taped videos to sway public opinion against what they consider cruel practices.
But Branstad's action wasn't a surprise. Iowa is the nation's leading pork and egg producer, and the governor has strong ties to the state's agricultural industry. He signed the measure in a private ceremony and issued no statement about his decision.
Legislatures in seven other states — Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Utah — have considered laws that would enhance penalties against those who secretly record video of livestock, though the efforts have stalled in some states.
Iowa's law makes lying on a job application to get access to a farm facility a serious misdemeanor, punishable with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1,500. A second conviction carries harsher penalties. It won overwhelming approval in the Iowa Legislature on Tuesday.
Animal rights groups had called on Branstad to veto the bill, saying it ignores strong public sentiment that favors proper treatment of animals and methods of oversight that ensure safe food.
"Iowans deserve to know where their food is coming from, they deserve to know how the animals they're consuming have been treated, they deserve to have the farms held accountable for the conditions in these facilities," said Suzanne McMillan, spokeswoman for the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "He's really going against all those concerns and priorities that Iowans hold."
But John Weber, who grows grain and raises hogs near Dysart, about 100 miles northeast of Des Moines, said most farmers don't abuse or mistreat their animals and there are systems in place to deal with mistreatment when it's reported. He called the new law a good piece of legislation.
"It will give some protection for farmers from people who enter their facilities fraudulently," he said.
Iowa farmers have felt under attack since activists distributed a series of videos that they claimed showed the mistreatment of animals, from pigs being beaten to chicks being ground up alive. The state typically has more than 19 million hogs and 54 million egg-laying chickens in barns and confinement buildings.
Sen. Joe Seng, a Davenport Democrat and veterinarian who sponsored the bill, said the measure strikes a balance by discouraging animal activists from sneaking into livestock facilities but not prohibiting someone who legitimately works there from reporting animal abuse.
The bill that passed was changed from an earlier version due to concerns that language making undercover video recording illegal could violate free speech protections in the U.S. Constitution.
Craig Hill, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, has said he hopes Iowa's action can lead the way for other states to pass similar legislation.
The Utah House has approved a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to film on private agricultural property without the owner's consent, and the measure is now awaiting debate in the Senate.