Iowa ban on secret farm recordings could end up in court

The Iowa House on Thursday approved House File 589, which establishes new civil and criminal penalties for various offenses on farms, including unauthorized audio or video recordings. Nine House Democrats joined all of the Republicans present to pass the bill on a 66 to 27 vote. Click here for the full bill text (here’s a pdf version). The House Journal includes the roll call on this bill. The Democrats who voted yes were Deborah Berry (district 22), Dan Kelley (district 41), Helen Miller (district 49), Dan Muhlbauer (district 51), Brian Quirk (district 15), Roger Thomas (district 24), Kurt Swaim (district 94), Andrew Wenthe (district 18), and John Wittneben (district 7). Most of them represent largely rural or small-town areas, except for Berry, whose district includes part of Waterloo.

I’ve posted some of the controversial language in House File 589 after the jump. The bill raises constitutional questions; last year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a federal law banning depictions of animal cruelty, citing First Amendment concerns. Yesterday in Des Moines,

Dan Hauff, investigations director for Chicago-based Mercy for Animals, said the law is likely unconstitutional under the First Amendment. He said it would inhibit investigative journalists from reporting on animal cruelty, environmental hazards and food safety issues on farms. He said the organization might bring litigation if the bill becomes law, but he hoped it wouldn’t make it that far.

Senator Tom Harkin said yesterday he hadn’t studied details on House File 589, but he argued against the idea behind the policy.

“Thankfully, because of whistleblowers and others doing undercover work, we are finding out about a lot of the abuses that are taking place in animal agriculture – and some of those abuses have just been awful,” Harkin said during a conference call with reporters.

House Agriculture Committee Chair Annette Sweeney, a cattle farmer who is the lead sponsor on this bill, defended the legislation, saying, “We are completely concerned about the health and well-being of our animals on our farms, and if we have individuals coming onto our farms and filming and not telling us they’re there, we are sincerely worried about the health and biosecurity.” Speaking for Democrats who voted against House File 589, State Representative Pat Murphy argued that “the overwhelming majority of farmers and people who own breeding facilities in Iowa operate very reputable businesses and treat their animals well,” but “you have to wonder” what the few who have problems at their facilities want to hide.

Des Moines-based advertising specialist Michael Libbie considers this bill a big public relations mistake:

[P]assing such legislation controlling and making the filming and distribution illegal makes ag look….bad.  Very bad. […]

At a time when agriculture needs more, not less, friends and at a time when so many people have horrible misconceptions about farming and nearly zero relationships with farmers and ranchers…this bill is ill advised.  Bad idea for agriculture, bad idea for farmers and ranchers….this will only fuel the fires of those who already think animal agriculture is evil.  And for those who don’t, they  just might start wondering, “So, what is going on they don’t want me to know about?”

I expect the Iowa Senate to approve this bill with minimal changes, and Governor Terry Branstad to sign it. Ultimately, courts will probably decide whether House File 589 or similar legislation being considered in Florida goes too far in restricting free speech.

UPDATE: A Bleeding Heartland reader commented by e-mail that Republicans like James O’Keefe’s secret sting videos (against NPR or ACORN, for example). Why should big ag receive special protection against that kind of exposure?

Continue Reading...

My son's school wants me to buy Tyson foods

cross-posted at La Vida Locavore and the EENR progressive blog

My son just started kindergarten in the Des Moines public system. His school has a wonderful and caring staff, and he is having a great time, as he did in the pre-school program there.

Unfortunately, like almost all public schools these days, this school relies on fundraising by the parents’ group to pay for essential school supplies.

The parents’ group decided years ago not to have our kids sell chocolate or wrapping paper or some other overpriced product to raise money, and I appreciate that.

They have opted this year to participate in the Tyson Project A+ label collection program, which is sponsored by Tyson Foods, Inc.

A sheet went home with my son encouraging parents to clip and save Tyson Project A+ labels, which are worth 24 cents each for the school:

Through this program, we can raise as much as $12,000 for our school this year! The money we raise can go towards buying books or computers, making improvements to our buildings, or anything else that we want.

Here is a list of 53 Tyson chicken products with labels I can clip and collect for the school.

Most Tyson chicken products contain meat from birds that have been treated with antibiotics, which may be a leading contributor to drug-resistant bacteria.

Tyson fired several employees earlier this year following reports of excessive cruelty at two of its factories.

Two years ago, Tyson had to pay $1.5 million in back pay for hiring discrimination. In 2002, the U.S. Department of Labor sued the company for pay practices that violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 2005, Tyson Foods paid the state of Kentucky $184,515 to settle six cases related to worker safety, including one that stemmed from a fatal accident.

Tyson also has a history of profiting from the employment of illegal immigrants. In fact, some of its managers were involved in recruiting illegal immigrants to work at Tyson factories, which led to a

36-count federal indictment that prosecutors obtained against Tyson in December 2001. The company was charged in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga with having, among other things, engaged in an elaborate seven-year scheme to recruit hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala for its poultry plants in at least 12 states. Six of Tyson’s mid-level executives or plant managers were also indicted. But in the end, even though Tyson was benefiting from illegal workers laboring in its plants, the executives avoided conviction.

It was the most ambitious criminal immigration case ever against an employer. Prosecutors demanded $100 million as a forfeiture penalty that they said represented the company’s ill-gotten gains. The transcript for the six-and-a-half-week trial ran 5,464 pages. On March 26, the jury rendered its verdict: not guilty on all counts.

The sting had caught several Tyson managers or their assistants on audiotape and videotape plotting to recruit and hire illegal aliens for several plants, including the one at Shelbyville. Seven Tyson employees, whom the company eventually fired, had quietly pleaded guilty to immigration-related offenses.

During the late 1990s, Tyson employed 67,000 workers at 55 poultry plants. Court testimony established that a number of those workers were illegal, some hired directly and some through temp agencies.

I buy chicken directly from sustainable farmers or from the Wholesome Harvest coalition of small organic family farmers, which has been endorsed by the Organic Consumers Association. I don’t like feeling pressure to buy Tyson chicken products in order to pay for classroom supplies and school improvements.

Inadequate funding for public schools is the root of this problem. The parents’ group organizes several fundraising projects during the year, including a chili supper and silent auction which is always a success. But it’s not easy to raise significant funds without urging kids to sell products people don’t need. A concert for the school, featuring a famous children’s artist, lost money two years ago.

Programs like Tyson Project A+ probably seem like a good deal to parents who would be buying some of these foods anyway. For my part, I plan to donate $50 directly to the parents’ group. I’d have to buy more than 200 Tyson products to raise an equivalent amount through this label collection program.

UPDATE: Thanks to ragbrai08, who noted that I forgot to mention Tyson’s settlement with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in November 2006 “for $871,000 on behalf of black workers who alleged that they were racially harassed and retaliated against at a chicken processing plant in Ashland, Alabama.”

Continue Reading...
View More...