Utahns who take unauthorized video or photos of agricultural operations could face up to a year in jail under a bill signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Gary Herbert, although the bill could face a legal challenge.
The measure is aimed at preventing whistleblowers from taking the type of surreptitious images of farms and processing plants that have proven damaging to the meat industry.
Animal welfare advocates had urged the governor to veto the bill, arguing that it would silence whistleblowers who they said have protected the public.
Nathan Runkle, executive director of the group Mercy For Animals, which has conducted several unauthorized operations, said that Herbert failed Utahns by creating “a safe haven for animal abuse and other criminal activity in the state,” and that Mercy For Animals and other groups are exploring potential legal challenges.
“Consumers have a right to know how their food is being produced and how animals on modern farms are treated so they can make informed choices,” Runkle said. “But now, due to this misguided law, consumers would be wise assume that food produced on Utah farms is the product of systematic cruelty and corruption.
Opponents to the bill included actress Katherine Heigl, who lives in Utah and urged lawmakers to defeat the measure.
But Sterling Brown, vice president for public policy for the Utah Farm Bureau, said that the secret recordings have done nothing to help the public.
“These individuals and organizations have done more of a disservice than anything positive,” he said.
Brown said that if the public suspects there is wrongdoing at a farm or ranch they should contact local law enforcement.
“There’s a proven way for these operations to be investigated,” Brown said. “But to intentionally be hired by a farm or ranch for the purpose of making undercover video or sound recordings is not, we feel, a professional or accurate way of doing it.”
Originally, the bill would have made the first violation a class A misdemeanor and each subsequent violation a third-degree felony, but the felony provision was removed from the bill.
In a letter to Herbert this month, Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle cited a 2008 undercover video by the organization taken at a slaughterhouse in California that found sick and injured animals were being sold to the federal school lunch program. It resulted in the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
Similar agricultural protection laws have been proposed in other states, like Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Tennessee. They have been defeated in Florida and Illinois and have become law in Iowa, according to the Humane Society.