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DES MOINES, Iowa - Opponents of a measure aimed at helping agricultural operations guard against "gotcha" videos secretly filmed inside livestock operations are raising food safety and other concerns in an attempt to keep House File 589 from reaching Gov. Terry Branstad's desk this legislative session.
Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said Tuesday the bill backed by agricultural interests not only raises concerns about constitutional rights, animal welfare, and employee rights, but carries food-safety implications in the wake of last summer's salmonella outbreak that forced millions of eggs to be recalled.
The legislation, which already passed the House on a 66-27 vote, seeks to create new criminal and civil penalties for anyone convicted of tampering or interfering with property associated with a livestock or crop operation. It also criminalizes secret recording on farms.
Penalties in the legislation awaiting Senate consideration range from misdemeanors to felonies. Crimes range from surreptitiously making a record of any sound or image at animal facilities to intentionally damaging equipment or injuring livestock.
Backers say the legislation is needed to stop animal-rights activists from disrupting farm operations and using selectively edited video or photographs to put the agriculture industry in a bad light.
Critics counter that measure puts a chill on whistleblowers who would otherwise report the inhumane and illegal treatment of animals at some operations.
"We're setting up a special standard for the livestock industry and we're putting them in a separate class of corporations that would have what I consider whistle-blower protection removed and be able to operate with immunity from inside employees sharing what would be considered animal welfare abuses or other issues like sanitation and safety," McCoy said.
"This could impact other industries who will also ask for this protection – it could be nursing homes, child-care centers, hospitals, medical clinics or Planned Parenthood clinics that don't want undercover video of their care and practices of people being shared as well," he said. "It's a first amendment issue but it's also a consumer protection issue."
To make his point, McCoy has drafted amendments to the bill seeking to expand the prohibition on secretly videotaping at livestock facilities to include other facilities, such as nursing homes and abortion clinics.
"They're all very interested in this bill because they've all seen these undercover videos and they don't want that happening to their industry, so they want to stop this from happening," he said. "The whole bill is fraught with problems. They're having a hard time drafting a constitutional amendment. We're saying there's a point where you can't take a bad piece of legislation and make it work."
However, Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, said he believes the bill can be modified to pass constitutional challenges. He said backers have been working with the Iowa Attorney General's Office to strengthen trespassing laws, include signage provisions on who can and cannot go into an agricultural building and address labor agreements between employers and their workers.
"Most people who looked at the House version question the constitutionality of it so we're going to try to avoid that," Kibbie said.
The Senate president said there are issues relating to livestock and crop production involving disease and viruses that require people to adhere to the restrictions contained in the legislation.
"We have a lot of GMOs. If they're going to ask us to double our crop production in Iowa in the next 30 to 40 years to be able to feed the world, we need to make sure that these producers have the proper protections," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said he expects the bill will be debated in the Senate once supporters have resolved the constitutional problems.
"I think it had some provisions that were pretty blatantly unconstitutional so we're working through that, so there may be a bill, there may not," he said. "Many of the people in our caucus would like to address that issue, we just want to make sure that if we do something that it actually makes sense – that it doesn't kill a fly with a sledge hammer and we'll be constitutional in the eyes of the court."