By André DumontFeatures Companies Profiles United States
Do you have activists in Canada? The question came just as I thought the interview was over. Andrew Kaldenberg had answered all my questions, but he had a lot more to tell. He seemed puzzled that his Canadian guest had not asked about animal welfare advocacy groups.
After answering that farmers in Quebec – where I do most of my agriculture reporting – have not yet had to face such groups, the complex manager at Rose Acre Farms’ 1.3-million-layer facility in Stuart, Iowa, told me the story of how this location was targeted by activists.
On April 7, 2010, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) held a press conference at a downtown Des Moines hotel. Farmer groups and farm press members were kept out. Inside, the HSUS revealed shocking footage of alleged mistreatment of layers.
The HSUS claimed its “investigator” worked inside four different “factory farms” in Iowa in February and March 2010, revealing a “staggering scope of suffering.”
“This is not a matter of a couple of rotten eggs, but rather standard practices that are simply rotten. As investigation after investigation has shown, the cruelty is pervasive throughout the entire battery-cage industry. It’s time for an end to cage confinement of laying hens,” the HSUS said.
Two hours later, a reporter knocked on the door at Rose Acre’s complex in Stuart, 40 miles away. Kaldenberg welcomed him and claimed the HSUS video was staged and largely misrepresentative of practices.
The HSUS’s so-called investigator had indeed worked at the Stuart complex, three months earlier. “He worked for us for maybe two weeks. I don’t know if he even collected a paycheque,” Kaldenberg said.
What’s for sure is that this person had been hired using someone else’s identification papers. The activist received all proper orientation and training, including how to handle birds. He was required to sign a company statement that makes it mandatory for all employees to immediately report any form of abuse to the birds.
“If that person really thought it was abuse, he violated his sworn oath,” Kaldenberg said.
Iowa state law makes animal abuse or neglect illegal, Kaldenberg also pointed out. “That person should have called the authorities right away. Instead, it came out at a press conference three months later!”
Some of the footage shown did come from the Stuart complex, but Kaldenberg says it was a bad case of misrepresentation. “They show birds in move-out carts and try to say that’s where they live all the time.”
Kaldenberg, who is also the president of the Iowa Poultry Association, toured the reporter around, showing him “the other side of the story.”
Kevin Vinchattle, the association’s executive director, also participated in countering the HSUS’s attack. “If things are not right for these hens, they are not going to lay eggs,” he repeated. “If we don’t produce eggs, we are not going to buy corn, soybean, electricity and everything else we need for egg production. That will affect the livelihood of a lot of people.”
That night, the same reporter showed on TV the very same statement the undercover activist had signed, promising to report any mistreatment of the birds. By welcoming the reporter and demonstrating that there was nothing to hide, “we killed the story,” Kaldenberg said. The way he dealt with the issue was pure common sense and not the result of any media or crisis training from Rose Acre Farms, he said.
Changing the law
Activists who target poultry farms and get hired by misrepresenting their identity put at risk the safety of the birds and the livelihood of the farms they target, Vinchattle says. “If they are not working with the best interest of the farm and of the birds at heart, they are a huge risk. They may cut corners in a biosecurity practice or never handle the birds properly. I don’t think that is fair to someone like Andrew.”
To prevent more activists from entering their farms undercover, the Iowa Poultry Association suggested the law be changed, making it illegal to film and photograph without consent on a farm, as well as to obtain access to a farm by false pretences. The idea received a warm welcome from Annette Sweeney (Republican), the chair of the Iowa House of Representative’s Agriculture Committee.
The proposed law has garnered significant media coverage, especially the part that makes it illegal to “produce a record which reproduces an image or sound occurring at the animal facility without the consent of the owner.”
For Kaldenberg and Vinchattle, however, the most important part of the legislation is about “animal facility fraud.” The proposed law would make it illegal to “obtain access to an animal facility by false pretenses for the purpose of committing an act not authorized by the owner,” and to “make a false statement or representation as part of an application to be employed at the animal facility, if the person knows the statement to be false, and makes the statement with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner.”
The bill was passed in the state house of representatives March 17, 2011, and handed over to the state senate. A few amendments were filed and the process has been stalled since June 29.
This law was written specifically for agriculture. However, Vinchattle says, “If I was in any other industry, I wouldn’t want someone working who is not who he claims to be.”
Whether the law is passed or not, it will not change Kaldenberg’s common-sense approach. Those who are worried about bird welfare in battery cages may call or show up for a visit to see for themselves. “I welcome activists,” he says.
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