BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's $2.5 billion dairy industry went on the offensive Thursday against agricultural espionage, where camera-wielding animal-rights activists spy on farms in hopes of catching cruelty to cows on tape.
The legislation, backed by some of the nation's largest milk producers, would put people who surreptitiously film their operations in jail for up to a year and slap them with a $5,000 fine. The measure follows Utah and Missouri, states that have already enacted so-called "ag gag laws."
Idaho dairies are promoting the measure following a video produced in 2012 by the Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal-rights group Mercy for Animals. One of its members got a job at a Bettencourt Dairies facility in Hansen, then captured images of workers caning, beating and stomping on cows that had fallen on the farm's wet concrete floor.
Bob Naerebout, the Idaho Dairymen's Association president, said such clandestine missions should be forbidden, especially since these groups' members typically misrepresent their identities or backgrounds on job applications to infiltrate the milking barn.
"They obviously have an agenda against animal agriculture," Naerebout said. "It's never a legal purpose when you lie and deceive to gain access to an operation."
Since the 1990s, Idaho has become the nation's third-biggest dairy state, with only California and Wisconsin producing more milk.
If passed, Naerebout's measure would apply to all agriculture production facilities, from dairies to sugar beet research stations, and would prohibit making audio or video recordings of their operations without first getting permission.
Additionally, the bill, introduced Thursday in the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee, would criminalize obtaining records from such operations by force or misrepresentation. Lying on an employment application for such a farm would also be outlawed.
Beyond the fine and jail time, those found guilty would have to pay restitution equal to twice the damage caused.
On Thursday, Bettencourt Dairies chief financial officer Rick Onaindia didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Nathan Runkle, Mercy For Animal's executive director, said Thursday that the bill aims to silence whistle blowers and is "a desperate attempt to sweep evidence of animal cruelty under the rug."
Runkle has previously said that his group was deploying its video in a bid to convince potential Bettencourt customers, including Kraft Foods and Burger King, to boycott its products.
That's one of the problems, Naerebout said: These groups are using their films to try to sabotage businesses — even when the dairies have responded appropriately to animal cruelty cases.
For instance, in the Bettencourt Dairies' case, not only were employees prosecuted and found guilty, but owner Luis Bettencourt fired five workers after seeing the video and installed video cameras throughout his 60,000-cow operation.
"Dairies know the better you handle and care for your animals, the greater the return on your assets," Naerebout contends. "It's not logical that they mistreat their assets."
Not surprisingly, animal-rights activists have opposed gag proposals elsewhere.
Utah's 2012-passed law is already subject of a federal court challenge, with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund arguing it restricts free speech, singles them out for punishment and was motivated by hostility.
Idaho will likely be the venue for a fight, too. Lisa Kauffman, an Idaho spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States, said Thursday that she plans to speak against the bill when it gets its first formal hearing, possibly as early as next week.
That's when she'll release a new Humane Society video arguing that the proposal will erect unnecessary and potentially unconstitutional roadblocks for groups seeking to make sure that agricultural animals are treated appropriately. "Call your legislators," urges the video, which was reviewed by The Associated Press. "Tell them 'No Ag-Gag Bill' in Idaho."
Still, members of Idaho's ag-friendly Republican majority are receptive to a tough new law.
House Majority Caucus Chairman John VanderWoude, who for 20 years owned a 300-cow dairy, said he was appalled at the cruelty he saw from the Mercy For Animals video. Still, the notion of somebody lying on a job application in a bid to capture such images strikes him as wrong.
"You've got to give farms the ability to protect themselves," said VanderWoude, R-Nampa. "You can't just have people running around with cameras."