Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2012, 9:59 pm

New video shares livestock treatment footage

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DES MOINES — Animal rights activists say a new video showing alleged abuses at an Iowa livestock facility demonstrates that their investigations are needed to inform the public, as lawmakers consider a bill to address such filming.

The Washington, D.C.-based animal protection organization Compassion Over Killing on Wednesday released the video they said shows poorly performed castrations of hogs resulting in herniated intestines; pregnant and nursing pigs nearly immobilized in crates; layers of feces caked on the floor; and sick or injured piglets not receiving veterinary care.

The video, which the group said was taken at Hawkeye Sow Centers in Leland, was captured by a hidden camera worn by one of the group's investigators, as they worked at the facility for about three weeks in December.

Under the state Senate proposal, that investigator — and Compassion Over Killing — could face aggravated misdemeanor charges for gaining fraudulent employment.

State Sen. Joe Seng, D-Davenport, who co-sponsored the measure, said he doesn't believe there are penalties in place for gaining employment fraudulently, whether at a livestock operation or any other business.

The measure is eligible for debate on the Senate floor, as it's an amendment to a bill that was approved in the House and by the Senate Agriculture Committee last year. The bill approved in the House could result in felony charges for not just the group, but anyone who possessed or disseminated the video, too.

Erica Meier, executive director of Compassion Over Killing, said such investigations offer consumers a small window into where their food comes from, and should be protected. Lawmakers and the industry should work to stop abuse, not limit what people see, she said.

"When it comes to the meat industry, animal cruelty is standard practice," Meier said. "And rather than try to prevent the worst abuses, big agribusiness is trying to prevent Americans from finding out about them with ag-gag bills designed to ban these exposes."

Officials with Hawkeye Sow Centers declined to comment.

But supporters of the Senate Amendment 5004 to House File 589 say the videos can be staged or misleading, and are more about shutting down the livestock industry and gaining attention than protecting animals.

Tyler Bettin, producer education director for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, a pork promotion and education group, said farmers are frustrated with people gaining employment under false pretenses, using fake names, backgrounds and other information.

Bettin, who grew up on a hog farm in southern Minnesota, said that's the main issue the group wants to address.

"It's not necessarily the videos, but how they're going about obtaining that information," he said.

State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said current laws covering animal abuse, defamation, fraud and trespass address the issues about which livestock farmers are concerned. He said background checks also could catch people trying to gain employment under false pretenses.

"I don't think we need a lot more legislation in the area," Hogg said. "We need to enforce the laws we have."

Hogg said he doesn't see wide support for increasing penalties.

"I think it is wrong to make it a criminal offense for somebody who happens to misstate something on an employment application," Hogg said. "I think there are other ways of addressing the legitimate concerns that the agricultural community has about this situation, where you've got people trying to set them up."

The Iowa House last year approved HF 589, which would make it illegal to capture, possess or transmit unauthorized recordings at farms and livestock operations, on a 66-27 vote. The bill also passed the Senate Agriculture Committee.

But lawmakers last year were wary about the measure because of First Amendment implications, and legal experts said it would not stand up to a court challenge. It was never debated on the Senate floor.

The new measure, filed last month by state Sens. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone, and Joe Seng, D-Davenport, instead focuses on fraudulent employment rather than videotaping.

Iowa is not the only state looking to stifle expose videos at livestock operations. Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York and Utah have considered similar legislation, Meier said.

Compassion Over Killing can't pursue legal action against Hawkeye Sow Centers, Meier said, because nothing that documented in the video is considered criminal.

"It's all standard industry practice," she said.

Bettin agreed the video doesn't show any practices that are out of the norm.

"We certainly don't advocate any abuse of our animals and any abuse that is done is detrimental both to the animal and the farm itself and its viability in the marketplace," he said. "So it isn't good for anybody."