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Acting on a tip, the high-profile animal rights group PETA sent two investigators to an Iowa farm. Getting jobs at the farm, they secretly recorded workers beating pigs with metal rods, kicking them repeatedly and shocking one crippled sow with an electric prod.
But it wasn't about addressing the animal cruelty in PETA’s video. Rather, Iowa lawmakers passed a bill making it a criminal offense that’s punishable by jail time to lie on a job application for farm work.
Iowa farms now routinely ask applicants if they are a member of PETA, the Humane Society of the United States or other animal rights groups – a response to activists conducting undercover work in a variety of animal-related operations for more than a decade.
Supporters of the bill, like Iowa Farm Bureau President Craig Hill, believe it protects farmers from unfair profiling.
"I think it’s malicious when they show up intent on putting you out of business,” said Hill, who owns a hog farm near Ackworth, Iowa.
Passed in 2012, the law became the first of any state in the nation aimed at stopping similar undercover videos. Though no one has been convicted under the Iowa law, animal rights groups say they've stopped their undercover investigations as a result. And in the time since its passage, six more states have passed similar legislation: Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and Utah.
Agriculture is big business – and politically powerful – in rural states like Iowa. Pork alone is worth $5 billion to the state’s economy, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association.
"This is a very clear effort by the meat industry to prevent whistleblowers from gaining employment at factory farms and slaughter plants because they don’t want them taking photos of routine animal cruelty, food safety problems and more," said Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States.
Like PETA, the Humane Society has conducted undercover investigations aimed at rooting out abuses at slaughterhouses and elsewhere. Shapiro and other animal rights advocates have dubbed these laws “ag gag.”
Hill says the label is a misnomer.
"Everyone has the freedom of speech," he said. "Everyone has the freedom and the ability to report something that’s inappropriate that’s going on. If there is abuse, we don’t tolerate that. And everyone has the ability to report or to go to the owner or go to the officials with questions and concerns."
Animal right advocate Amy Meyer doesn’t see it that way.
Last year in Utah, Meyer used her phone to record video of a downed cow being moved by a bulldozer outside a slaughterhouse. The police were called, and Meyer – who shot the video from the side of a public road – was arrested on the charge of "agricultural operation interference."
“These laws are designed to instill fear in law-abiding citizens,” says Meyer, who has since taken a job at PETA. The charges against Meyer were eventually dropped, and Utah’s law is being challenged in court.
Ted Genoways, who wrote “The Chain,” a book coming out this fall on hog production in the United States, said workers who question the treatment of animals are often fired.
"These are facilities where the workforce is largely unskilled and untrained. You can replace people very quickly. It doesn’t take anything to decide someone is being a troublemaker by reporting something and to get rid of them and hiring someone who doesn’t complain," he said.
PETA’s months-long investigation at a hog operation near Bayard, Iowa, began in 2008 after getting a tip from a worker who was fired after questioning the facility’s practices, according to Genoways.
PETA is unapologetic about its ultimate aim: using videos and other means to bring an end to raising animals for food. Shapiro said the Humane Society has different goals.
"The meat industry views animals as units of production on an assembly line. They view them as merely commodities," Shapiro said. "Groups like the Humane Society of the United States view animals as living creatures who deserve to be treated with some modicum of decency and compassion."
Hill, the pork producer, said animal rights advocates miss the point. His business does better when his animals are happy.
"The better I care for an animal, the more healthy they are. The more productive they are," he said.
If the animal rights groups truly cared about animals, Hill argued, they would report the abuse as soon as they witness it, rather than continuing to shoot videotape.
But Shapiro said it takes time to build a case.
"Without video evidence it is often nearly impossible to get authorities – especially in rural areas – to bring criminal charges in farm animal cases," Shapiro says.
The PETA videotape resulted in charges against six workers at the facility, which has since changed ownership, and the first-ever convictions for livestock abuse on a Midwestern farm, according to Genoways.
In an effort to encourage whistleblowers, Iowa farmers launched the Iowa Animal Farm Animal Care Coalition last year with a hotline for workers to report abuse. The organization has thus far received a handful of calls about people not properly caring for domestic animals such as horses, rather than livestock abuse, said Denny Harding, executive director.
Iowa’s hotline has done little to mollify animal right groups.
The Humane Society’s Shapiro said groups like his are unlikely to see eye-to-eye with livestock producers in Iowa or anywhere else, anytime soon.
“I think what you’re seeing right now is a collision of two forces," he explained. "You have one force of Americans that want to see better animal welfare, wants to see an end to the worst factory farm abuses. On the other hand, you have agribusiness industry that wants to prevent any rules, they want to prevent any oversight over how they are treating animals. Those two forces will continue to collide for some years to come.”