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Livestock Farms Could Be Off Limits To Photos


In Iowa and in Florida, big livestock operations are supporting bills that would forbid animal rights activists from going undercover to take photos and document conditions at big farms. Activists are asking what the industry has to hide. From Iowa Harvest Public Media's Kathleen Masterson reports.

KATHLEEN MASTERSON: If livestock industry groups get their way what happened at this farm would be considered a crime. Here in central Iowa amid an expanse of cornfields, Rose Acre Farms has six huge hen houses, each the length of a football field.

Last February, an undercover activist from the Human Society got a job here. He wanted to get inside and film the workings of the facility that houses about a million chickens. He stayed here only two weeks.

Then three months later, the Human Society held a news conference and splashed a video on the Web. It shows scenes filmed at Rose Acre Farms and another company's farm. The footage shows chickens living in cramped cages and some dead birds whose carcasses were left so long they'd been mummified.

Unidentified Woman: The crews just shoving them in the cages, sometimes they'll get their legs slammed in the door or their wings.

MASTERSON: The pending Iowa law would make filming this video without the owner's permission and the mere possession of it a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in jail.

At Rose Acres, farm manager Andrew Kaldenberg says while the video did show some footage of their farm, the abuses didn't occur there. The media were invited out to their barn within hours of the video being released.

Mr. ANDREW KALDENBERG (Manager, Rose Acres): We welcome reporters, you know, what have we got to hide? If we're not treating our animals right, they ain't going to produce. They're not going to produce, we're out of business.

MASTERSON: So I asked him to show me around the hen houses.

Mr. KALDENBERG: In this house we are ten rows wide, five tier high. That means that we have five cages stacked on top of each other.

MASTERSON: Kaldenberg says the activists' motives are to promote an agenda which is vehemently against how the industry produces food, with thousands of birds living in row after row of small cages.

Rose Acre Farms and other large chicken, hog and cattle organizations say the pending Iowa legislation is being mischaracterized. They say it isn't about stopping whistleblowers from reporting abuse, but argue it's about keeping people who misrepresent their true purpose from getting hired.

Kevin Vinchattle is the executive director of the Iowa Egg Council.

Mr. KEVIN VINCHATTLE (Executive Director, Iowa Egg Council): People are trying to characterize the livestock folks as trying to hide things. We're not. We don't want any animal to be abused. And if it's truly a case where a person thinks that abuse is occurring, that needs to be reported immediately, not six weeks done the road or months later in a video released for PR efforts to raise money for an organization.

MASTERSON: But a whole section of the Iowa bill explicitly bans photography.

There's a similar bill under debate in Florida. Kansas and Montana already have laws that ban taking secret photos of an animal facility if the intent is to damage the owner. And other states across the country are also considering similar legislation.

Humane Society's Paul Shapiro says the bills are an attempt to shield America's food production system from public scrutiny. He says their exposes have been done legally and resulted in convictions for animal cruelty, as well as meat recalls over food safety problems. Without undercover videos, activists say their claims wouldn't be taken seriously.

In Iowa, State Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, said a bill like this would set a dangerous precedent. He argues the multibillion dollar livestock industry wants to operate with less oversight.

State Senator MATT MCCOY (Democrat, Iowa): They view animal welfare groups and individuals that take undercover video and release it to the public as a threat to their livelihood.

MASTERSON: Neither side in this fight appears willing to budge yet on a key sticking point, whether secretly photographing farm animals should be considering a criminal act.

For NPR News, I'm Kathleen Masterson in Ames, Iowa.

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INSKEEP: Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.