Of all places where a political observer might predict that farm-favorable legislation would fare well at the state level, Iowa would be one state at or near the top of the list.

The Hawkeye State leads the country in corn (2.37 billion bushels) and soybean (439 million bushels) production, annually raises more than 20 million hogs, 4 million cattle, 66.9 million chickens, 4 million turkeys and 200,000 sheep and reaps billions from farm gate revenues and food processing.

But if you assumed that with production agriculture so vital to the state’s economy, a bill to protect farmers would sail through its legislature, you’d be wrong.

An effort to outlaw the undercover recording of animal abuse in livestock operations appears to have stalled in Iowa and several other states, for that matter—with the pushback is coming from citizens and activists complaining that the proposals were aimed at protecting an industry that doesn’t exhibit enough concern for farm animal welfare.

According to the Associated Press and other news reports, a bill introduced earlier this year to criminalize the actions of activists who capture unauthorized hidden videos appeared to be headed for approval in the Iowa Legislature.Proposed penalties included fines of up to $7,500 and up to five years in prison.

“I feel it is wrong to absolutely lie to get a job to try to defame the employer,” Rep. Annette Sweeney, a farmer and Republican legislator who sponsored the bill, told reporters at the time.

However, after being passed by the Iowa House, the measure has stalled in the Senate and appears dead for this session.

Similar measures also have failed in Minnesota, Florida and New York.

For producers, the issue is clear: Virtually everyone who hires on (usually under false pretenses) at a farm, growout facility or packing plant with the intention of either staging or heavily editing secret video footage has only one aim: To embarrass and discredit the operators, hopefully to the extent that legal liability ensues.

Of course, on occasion the abuses they record have been sickeningly graphic:

  • In 2009, undercover video at a Pennsylvania hog farm showed workers there picking up baby pigs by their ears and hind legs and throwing them across the barn.
  • Last summer, secretly recorded footage at an Ohio dairy farm showed cows being kicked and poked with pitchforks; the incident resulted in one worker being charged with 12 counts of cruelty to animals.
  • And just a few months ago, yet another graphic video from a cattle ranch in Texas depicted workers beating and kicking sick and injured calves, standing on their necks and ribs and throwing them onto piles todie.

And that’s in addition to the infamous footage captured at the former Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Company in California, where HSUS operatives recorded workers bulldozing downer cattle with the business end of a forklift, a clip that got USDA to revoke inspection approval for a company that was one of the nation’s largest supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program.

Much of the footage for those and other similar incidents really didn’t need editing to enhance the gruesome factor.

Livestock producers make the case that activists’ ultimate goal is to convince Americans to forgo meat eating altogether.

“The [activist] agenda is clear and basically anti-livestock,” said Bruce Berven, a staffer with the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association. “They are basically just using this issue to promote their vegan-slash-vegetarian agenda. There’s a bigger war going on than this issue.”

Ultimately, though, the legislation in Iowa and elsewhere got derailed, partly as a result of opposition from the Humane Society of the United States and other anti-industry groups, but partly because ordinary consumers simply can’t stomach the treatment animals receive in the video clips activists make sure get wide exposure.

When a bill to help protect producers and farmers from being blindsided by undercover videotaping gets defeated in Iowa, it’s not a good sign.

But until the industry does a better job collectively of training its work force to behave in ways that won’t get companies shut down, activists will be all too willing to do that job for them.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator