Iowa's 'ag gag' sponsor defends bill

Hogs are raised on a farm in Elma, Iowa. Iowa's state legislature passed a bill that would crack down on anyone trying to secretly document animal conditions at farming facilities. Animal rights activists are outraged, but the bill's sponsor says it's a necessary measure to protect private property.

Iowa State Sen.  Joe Seng.

Kai Ryssdal: In Iowa this week the state legislature created the new crime of agricultural production facility fraud. It makes it a crime to get into -- or try to get into -- an animal or crop production facility under false pretenses, say, by lying to get a job. And so, by extension, making it very hard to get video footage of what goes on inside. Whistleblower groups and and animal rights activists don't like it much at all. Joe Seng is an Iowa state senator. He's a veterinarian as well. He co-sponsored the bill that's waiting for the governor's signature. Dr. Seng, thanks for being with us.

Joe Seng: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

Ryssdal: Why do you think the state of Iowa needed this law?

Seng: Actually we're agriculturally based and there have been attempts by certain groups to discredit the agricultural industry to the point where they stage their own productions against owners actually within their own facilities.

Ryssdal: Without doubting that that might have happened, you understand how this looks, right?

Seng: I understand that they think U.S. constitutional liberties are being violated. I assure you we have been with the AG's office on at least 8-10 meetings and they've assured us that no constitutional liberties are being violated as far videotaping. Actually, it doesn't even not allow videotaping or recording devices in there.

Ryssdal: Right. It talks only about trespassing. But my point is -- setting aside animal rights activists, even the most militant animal rights activists -- there are people and groups in this country who are worried that if we have to kill animals for food, we should do it in the most humane way possible. And the only way to get that information is to go undercover because plants and organizations and companies don't want that information public. They don't want us to see how we treat our food supply.

Seng: The U.S. constitution says that you cannot enter a person's private property without formal knowledge. Even a policeman has to obtain a search warrant to get on a piece of property. These are private properties owned by either farmers or corporations that have strict bio-security facilities that do not want either birds, mice, vermin, anything like that, even cockroaches entering into these facilities -- people included.

Ryssdal: What about the idea that we have a long history in this country of investigative journalists and others going into facilities like this -- this goes back to Upton Sinclair in "The Jungle" -- from which we got reforms in many industries that have worked out to the betterment of not only the animals, but people as well.

Seng: I would think that people like the news media, anything like that, this law that we just passed is not prohibitive against that. This is mainly entering a facility under fraudulent reasons. This law is not prohibitive from anybody that's seeing abuse occuring within these facilities that works there to take a picture of that and report it to the authorities. That is still in place. The whistleblower provision is not touched with at all. It's strictly fraud.

Ryssdal: Baring in mind that you're a veterinarian, sir, do you think plants -- and I assume you've seen your share of animal abuse -- are actually able to police themselves and to police themselves and have employees be whistleblowers in the truest sense?

Seng: It's sort of, I would say it's maybe a little bit vague in that area. There are always abuses in any industry. So I would say the jury is out on that one. I think the bill that we passed is mainly for protection of industry that is dedicated to actually feeding the world in the next 25 years. I'm trying to reach middle ground. This bill that we passed is a much toned-down version from the other one. It was actually 10 years in jail and it was moved down to one year in jail -- that as far as a maximum penalty.

Ryssdal: Dr. Joe Seng, he's a veterinarian and state senator in Iowa. Dr. Seng, thanks so much for your time.

Seng: Yeah, thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Iowa State Sen.  Joe Seng.

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