According to the Florida Farm Bureau, state Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, drafted his controversial “Farms” bill at the behest of Wilton Simpson of Pasco County, whose Simpson Farms produces 21 million eggs annually for Florida’s second-largest egg seller, Tampa Farm Service, Inc. As currently written, Senate Bill 1246 would make photography “at or of a farm” a first-degree felony.

Simpson, one of the Farm Bureau’s 140,000 members, suggested some language to Norman, R-Tampa, who filed the legislation without letting the Bureau vet it.

An uproar ensued, with the animal-rights community charging that the law would curb legitimate animal-welfare investigations into an already under-regulated and rarely exposed facet of industrial agriculture operations and law experts claiming that imposing such measures would be a violation of rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.

In addition, much has been made of the potential for both law enforcement and hobbyist photographers to be charged as felons, facing up to 30 years in prison alongside those found guilty of murder and armed robbery.

Via The Tampa Tribue:

“This farm bill is going national,” [Norman] said. “I’m being bombarded by PETA.”

Norman, R-Tampa, said he drafted … the bill at the request of Wilton Simpson, a prominent Dade City egg farmer and president of the Pasco County Fair Association.

The bill would make it a felony for anyone to film or photograph farm activities without the farm owner’s written consent. Norman said it’s targeted at animal activists who gain employment at farms to make undercover videos to post to the Internet.

“It’s been a problem nationally,” he said. “I’m talking about an assault on the agriculture industry.”

Last October, Wilton Simpson was one of a handful of potential candidates interviewed by the Republican Party of Florida to replace Jim Norman on the ballot for District 12, had a court ruling against the former Hillsborough County Commissioner for failing to disclose a $500,000 gift to his wife not been overturned just days before the election.

Similar legislation is currently pending in Iowa, where a bill introduced by Rep. Annette Sweeney, a rancher herself, aims to prohibit individuals or groups from “interfering with an animal facility or crop operation.” The language defines distributing audio or visual recordings as interference, with first offenses charged as an aggravated misdemeanor and any subsequent convictions carrying felony status.

The Associated Press reports:

Doug Farquhar, program director for environmental health at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said Iowa would be the first state to approve such restrictions but Florida is considering similar legislation. The Iowa measure was introduced after a number of group released videos showing cows being shocked, pigs beaten and chicks ground up alive.

“It’s very transparent what agribusiness is attempting to do here,” said Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association, a California-based group dedicated to protecting farm animals from abuse. “They’re trying to intimidate whistleblowers and put a chill on legitimate anti-cruelty investigations. Clearly the industry feels that it has something to hide or it wouldn’t be going to these extreme and absurd lengths.”

“Whistleblowers play an important role in our society — exposing waste, fraud, and abuse not just in agribusiness but in any industry,” Humane Society of the United States spokesman Paul Shapiro told The Florida Independent last week. ”Agribusiness is notoriously secretive because many of its standard industry practices are so extreme, so cruel, that they are out of step with what mainstream American values would demand of our treatment of animals.”

As reported by The Iowa Independent:

Whistleblowers, often affiliated with animal rights organizations, have often gone undercover at agricultural operations throughout the nation. Their reports, which are often in video format, have documented serious abuses and, many times, have prompted state and federal officials to further investigate the facility or plant.

For example, years before the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant in Postville hit the national radar in 2008 in connection with immigration abuses, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals placed undercover investigators in the plant. In 2004, PETA released an extremely graphic video that depicted several botched slaughters. It was that video  and the subsequent public outcry that prompted an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency’s findings noted repeated violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act — many completed in front of federal inspectors.

Several of Iowa’s largest egg producers had also been the target of numerous exposés by the Humane Society of the United States in early 2010, only months before the USDA issued the largest egg recall in U.S. history due to salmonella:

More recently, in April 2010, a video from Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises, two Iowa egg producers, was released as the end result of an undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States. Only weeks later two different Iowa egg producers voluntarily recalled millions of eggs linked to salmonella outbreaks.

The group argues that the “egregious animal cruelty” that they uncovered is what has prompted Iowa’s agribusiness industry to push for this specific bill.

Proponents of Norman’s bill, such as the Farm Bureau, argue that animal advocacy groups want to put them out of business, and will manipulate images covertly taken from agricultural operations to meet that end. They also point out that a single instance of undercover footage allegedly showing animal abuse or harsh living conditions can impact an entire industry — forcing consumers to cope with higher prices.

“The last thing a farmer wants to do is to do something that will create any type of recall,” said Ben Parks of the Florida Farm Bureau in an interview last week. “We’re very careful with what we do here in Florida because we know just one allegation can devastate an industry. When they had a tomato scare a year or two ago, it devastated the whole tomato industry.  So allegations can be devastating to a farmer or rancher.”

“The activities of PETA over the years, from our perspective, have been horrible,” he added. “How they pictured us as terrible farmers and ranchers. Because we might have one or two that don’t follow the rules, it doesn’t mean that the rest of the farming/ranching community is that way at all. But they’ve painted us all as being that way.”

Norman’s office has refused to return messages seeking comment for a second straight week. The Farm Bureau is currently involved with the process of rewriting his bill, which is scheduled for review in a meeting of the Agriculture Committee on Monday.

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