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Farm filming bill would damage corporate accountability

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MARCH 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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If Iowa livestock farmers and crop growers forgo safe, humane business practices, the unsavory results could end up on someone’s plate.

Agricultural industries, like most, are subject to some amount of regulation and oversight to prevent the dissemination of substandard products and the treatment of animals in an overwhelmingly cruel manner. Recently, however, Rep. Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, and the Iowa House have taken issue with citizen investigations, putting forth a bill that would potentially make certain whistleblowing practices illegal.

HF 589, colloquially dubbed the “whistleblowers bill,” would criminalize secret taping or recording of agricultural-industry practices in the state by imposing a maximum of five years in prison and a $7,500 fine for workers found to have knowingly recorded potential misdeeds or who have been complicit in leaking dirty company secrets. The bill states that “a person is guilty of animal facility fraud” if he or she “[o]btains access to an animal facility by false pretenses for the purpose of committing an act not authorized by the owner of the animal facility” (the same holds true for crop facilities).

As Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, told the Iowa Independent, this bill deliberately targets a common investigative practice: animal-welfare activists working undercover at a farm to expose animal cruelty. Regardless of how one feels about the treatment of animals on factory farms, citizen investigation should not be met with hefty fines and prison terms; the Iowa Senate should reject this bill and stand on the side of free information.

“I’m totally opposed to this legislation,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, wrote in an e-mail. “We need to maintain protections for whistleblowers in Iowa. This is dangerous legislation that endangers animal welfare.”

Sweeney disagrees, and not just about the content of the proposed legislation. “Some people have labeled this the ‘whistleblowers bill,’ and I can tell you, that’s absolutely not true,” she told The Daily Iowan Editorial Board on Monday.

But what else to call a bill that singles out citizens when they serve as undercover watchdogs? HF 589’s reliance on motives and “false pretenses” makes its criminal charges dangerously vague; it could easily discourage farm workers from releasing videos, whether or not they’re secretly members of PETA.

“Iowa’s agribusiness industry has pushed this bill in order to shield their inhumane practices from public scrutiny and stifle open dialogue on animal welfare issues,” the U.S. Humane Society’s website proclaims.

There is a difference between undercover surveillance of individuals (which we are vociferously against) and of corporations. An individual’s right to privacy does not extend to corporate operations; government regulation alone is proof of this. Businesses are centers for profit, and treating them as entities responsible for their own oversight is tantamount to putting the fox in charge of the hen house. If individuals find hidden wrongdoing, they should be able to publicize their findings — in fact, to do so is often a moral obligation.

And increasing transparency is not solely beneficial to animal welfare. In a time of limited government resources, citizen whistleblowing is particularly important from a public-health standpoint. According to a 2010 report from the Department of Health and Human Services, “on average, the FDA inspects fewer than a quarter of food facilities each year, and the number of facilities inspected has declined over time.”

Not only has the FDA grown lax in its oversight and in-person inspections, there are laws in place that criminalize intrusion or destruction by animal-rights activists. In other words, as we all know from basic law, property damage and trespassing are illegal — there’s no need to ban information distribution as well.

After passing the House 66-27, the bill is now in the hands of the state Senate. Several outside interests have taken particular note of this bill, both in vehement support of and vociferous opposition to it. While a slew of state agriculture, livestock, and poultry farmer organizations have lobbied for its passage (not to mention agribusiness giants Monsanto and DuPont/Pioneer), several animal-rights organizations (plus the Iowa Environmental Council and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement) have taken the opposite tack. The DI Editorial Board sides with the latter for numerous reasons.

Put simply, HF 589 discourages whistleblowing, heavily criminalizes the sharing of information, and increases opacity, making it easier for businesses to conceal illegal or inhumane practices.

Corporations are, of course, free to fire workers who are working for them under false pretenses, but the state should not criminalize investigative activity. When deliberating this bill, we urge state senators to keep in mind the very different privacy rights guaranteed individual people versus corporate entities — and the benefits of a citizenry that holds all powers accountable for their actions.


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