Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When Politicians Agree


  While I was blogging about chess for the last 2 weeks, the Iowa legislature passed in a very bipartisan manner a law prohibiting animal rights activists from gaining entrance to agricultural facilities by posing as employees among other methods in order to expose animal cruelty. This law passed the Democratic controlled Iowa Senate 40 to 10, the Republican controlled House 68 to 29 and was signed by Republican Governor Branstad.

  Don’t get me wrong. I love animals, but I’m no animal rights activist. If I were, I doubt I’d be buying beef stick treats for my beagles or enjoying a bowl of clam chowder or a ham and cheese sandwich or some fried chicken at meal time. But if groups want to infiltrate agriculture facilities and publicize if dead animals are left in cages with live animals or if a nursing pig is confined to a cage so small it can’t even turn around in or if an egg-laying hen is kept in a tiny cage from its first egg to its death, I’m OK with that, too.

  What bothers me is that after not being able to agree on much else (except the gas tax, which has been quieted down since gas went up 70 cents a gallon over the last 2 months), Iowa politicians of both parties can agree on protecting Iowa’s precious agricultural facilities from having any potential abuses exposed. Not exposed by people sneaking into the premises (trespassing already being a crime) or breaking into the premises (burglary already being a crime), but by people who are getting into the facility as hired workers and then documenting the abuses. 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. What a bunch of nonsense. I could see someone working in a plant for 20 years, seeing some abuses, having a conscience attack and reporting it, and then being arrested for having gained their employment under false pretenses because they wrote down the wrong month that they stopped working at the local Wendy’s on their application 20 years ago or were judged as planning on exposing the abuses eventually because they burned their Michael Vick jersey after Vick was arrested for his dog-fighting ring or dated a vegetarian in high school. These people are getting hired, not sneaking into these facilities and I assume they would be working or else they would be fired. If the farmers don’t want their workers taking videos, they should be a lot more careful who they hire or make their workers sign a confidentiality agreement and then sue them if they break the rules.

  Annette Sweeney, a Republican representative from Alden, noted that sometimes anti-animal agriculture activists stage events to sabotage modern livestock and poultry production and said “Our agriculture community needs this new law…We want to make sure everybody involved in our livestock facilities is forthright and we want to make sure our livestock are kept safe. As farmers, we want to make sure the food we produce is safe and healthy." But this law doesn’t make it illegal to sabotage production facilities or stage events or keep the livestock from being safe or healthy. This law makes it illegal to lie on an application to get a job in agriculture facility and secretly take video or pictures. Aren’t there already laws against sabotaging the food supply? I also wonder now that there is a law against lying on an application for farm work with the intent of harming the business, will there be a new department of ‘Farm Application Inspection’ to enforce the truthfulness of all applications for farm work?

  Aside from agreeing on the need for a law making it illegal to lie on a farm worker application, Republican Sweeney, Democrat Seng, Republican Branstad and Iowa politicians of both parties can agree on something else: they all like getting money from big farm groups (as exposed in the Des Moines Register). Seng received $8,000, Sweeney $8,300 and Branstad over $800,000 in campaign contributions from agriculture interests. But they all deny that the funds they received had any impact on their decision to support this law. Seng said he sees the contributions as appreciation of what he’s done in the past and not in anticipation of future legislation. In that case, Seng can expect a large raise in his next campaign once his support of this law stops being current and can be appreciated as what he’s done in the past. I can only imagine what Branstad has done for his appreciation.

  Taking videos of the inside of a farm might be a civil offense but not criminal. The fact that this sort of bill is considered (much less passed) makes me wonder what these farmers have to hide. Maybe videos like this? (Warning!! This is unbelievably graphic.) If they were on the up and up, I’d think they’d have their own farm-cams to show the absence of abuse in order to battle any undercover filming instead of trying to lock up people if they try to expose some questionable practices. I’m not especially concerned how comfortable the chicken was before it made it to my dinner plate last Sunday, but it should be the right of people to expose perceived abuses and let the public decide whether they want to support the business in question without the exposers facing criminal penalties. If the farmers want to take these people to civil court, that’s their prerogative. Florida tried to make even taking a picture of a farm a felony offense! The effort failed, but I wonder if it passed, would Google Earth have to ‘blur’ out all the farms on their Florida maps?

  To me this simple little law has potentially huge implications. Will I someday be risking jail time when I indulge in my habit of making videos while waiting in line at the Wal-Mart, Staples, Subway, or the Post Office in the hopes of being spotted and getting quicker service? Will the Republicans support making it illegal to make ‘ACORN sting videos’ in a trade off to the Democrats for laws making it illegal to take secret videos in banks and brokerage houses. Seng also noted that "Whether the livestock producers are corporations or smaller farmers, they have a lot of dollars invested in their facilities… They also need to keep the activists out to prevent subversive acts or damage or misrepresentation that is meant to try to harm and bring down the livestock industry." If this kind of logic is allowed to be the source of law, to me it’s only a matter of time before all videos, pictures, and even blogs are labeled ‘subversive’ and come under increased government scrutiny. After all, everything is objectionable to somebody. I shudder now when I think of the long-term implications of when I blogged how the Hy-Vee had 15 stick packs of Wrigley Doublemint gum on sale for 99 cents each while less than a mile away, the Hy-Vee Drug Store had identical packs on sale for 44 cents even though they both are owned by Hy-Vee. After all, Hy-Vee is a big Iowa employer and ‘they have lots of dollars invested in their facilities’ Pointing out their inconsistent pricing of gum will probably be seen as subversive at some point in the future. I’ll continue this post another day, but right now someone is knocking at my front door…