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Idaho Senate bill helps prevent spying on dairy operations

BOISE – Dairy farmers enraged by animal-rights activists who spy on them in a bid to document abuse got a boost Friday when Idaho senators voted to intensify punishments for those who film their operations without permission.

The measure would put people caught surreptitiously recording agricultural operations in jail for up to a year and fine them $5,000.

The bill, which now goes to the House, stems from a 2012 incident at Idaho’s Bettencourt Dairy in Hansen, where activists from the group Mercy for Animals captured images of workers caning, beating and stomping on cows.

Idaho’s $2.5 billion milk industry argues the video was used by “agri-terrorists” to harm the dairy’s business, even after its owner fired workers and pursued animal-cruelty prosecution.

Sen. Jim Patrick, the sponsor from Idaho’s dairy heartland surrounding Twin Falls, argued that no less than the state’s food safety is at stake. He invoked the specter of groups including al-Qaida sneaking onto Idaho farms and putting crops and other commodities at risk.

“We as a nation are at risk of losing a lot of our food to terrorism,” Patrick said.

Other proponents put it in plainer terms: Dairy owners should be able to expect that people who are working for them are not lying on their job applications simply to sneak into their facilities.

“We have many things we do in agriculture that are not agreed upon by all,” Patrick said. “We’re potentially all at risk.”

Foes of the measure came from the ranks of the Senate’s civil liberties defenders who worried the bill is so broadly written that it could be interpreted to outlaw legitimate activities.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said the bill could impose the new criminal penalties on someone who unintentionally trespassed onto a site on which some agricultural activities were occurring and took pictures without any malicious intent. “It may go beyond what we intend,” he said.

Meanwhile, Democrats compared animal-rights activists to the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 book “The Jungle” about the Chicago meatpacking industry helped spur changes that improved food safety and working conditions.

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said the bill might actually backfire, undermining public confidence in the sincerity of Idaho dairies to protect their production animals. “This bill creates a perception the industry is hiding animal abuse,” Stennett said.

Utah has a similar “ag-gag law,” though it’s currently the target of a challenge in U.S. District Court on free-speech grounds and other concerns.

Spokesman-Review staff writer Betsy Z. Russell contributed to this report.

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