Boise, Idaho • Milk producers convinced state senators Tuesday to back a bill aiming to halt spying on their operations, a measure prompted by animal activists who captured cruelty at a southern Idaho dairy on film in July 2012.
The Agricultural Affairs Committee voted to back what proponents called an "agricultural security measure" and what foes branded a heavy-handed and punitive response to groups seeking to expose horrendous abuses.
The industry-backed bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote. A Democrat, Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking of Boise, opposed the measure.
The legislation would put people who surreptitiously enter and record agricultural operations in jail for up to a year and slap them with a $5,000 fine. It would criminalize obtaining records from dairies or other agricultural operations by force or misrepresentation, as well as lying on a farm's employment application.
Bob Naerebout, the Idaho Dairymen's Association president, says this will add "teeth and strength" to existing prohibitions on trespassing.
Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls and the bill's sponsor, said extremist animal activists were comparable to marauding invaders centuries ago who swarmed into foreign territory and destroyed crops to starve foes into submission.
"This is clear back in the sixth century B.C.," Patrick said. "This is the way you combat your enemies."
Two years ago, a man working with the Los Angeles-based vegetarian and animal-rights group Mercy for Animals got a job at a Bettencourt Dairies facility in Hansen, then captured images of workers caning, beating and stomping on cows that had fallen to the wet concrete floor.
Employees at Bettencourt's dairy were prosecuted following the incident, while Idaho's $2.5 billion annual dairy industry worked with colleges to create a worker training program, to curb abusive treatment.
On Tuesday, however, the measure's opponents argued it was an overreaction that would crimp the U.S. Constitution's free-speech protections, putting somebody behind bars merely for snapping a picture of a cow being beaten. A similar measure in Utah is now being challenged in U.S. District Court.
The dairy industry downplayed the constitutional angle, saying farm owners had a right to regulate what happens on own property.
"A factory owner, like you in your home, has the appropriate right to prohibit you from making recordings," said Daniel Steenson, the milk producers' lawyer.
But it's not just inside the milking house, countered the Idaho Conservation League's Courtney Washburn, who argued the measure was so broad, it could extend to filming potential abuse on public U.S. Forest Service territory where ranchers have grazing leases.
Others said the lives of those who report animal cruelty would become more fraught with fear of retaliation.
"People who are whistleblowers are terrified," said Boise resident David Monsees. "They lose their jobs. They lose their careers. This bill drives another nail in their hearts."
Meanwhile, agricultural interests said animal activists aren't merely trying to document abuses, rather to use videos as a tool to "terrorize" businesses.
For instance, the 2012 video resulted in bad publicity for Bettencourt and its 60,000-cow operation, as Mercy for Animals sought to convince companies it supplies to quit buying its milk products.
Elizabeth Criner, a Northwest Food Processors Association lobbyist, worries activists could eventually target her members in Idaho, Oregon and Washington including agribusiness giants J.R. Simplot Co., the Darigold milk cooperative and ConAgra Lamb Weston.
"We continue to see more ... activist efforts to attack the production and processing of food," Criner said. "Video footage taken under false pretense then presented out of context spreads quickly and can result in brand damage that is unrecoverable."
The Humane Society of the United States, a Washington, D.C.-based animal rights group, said charges Mercy for Animals' video takes the Bettencourt abuse out of context seek to distract from the real issue: Making sure farm animals are humanely treated.
"It's simply a scare tactic," said the group's spokesman, Matthew Dominguez. "The real intent of this bill is to stop animal rights groups from exposing cruelty."