Lawmakers say they increased the penalties for trespassing at livestock operations to protect farmers from harassment and deter intrusions that threaten the safety of the state’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry.
Bill sponsor and Republican state Sen. Ken Rozenboom said Johnson and other activists have trespassed at his hog facilities four times.
“Every time he and his henchmen do that, they violate biosecurity protocols that are necessary to keep our food supply safe. And we simply can’t tolerate that kind of reckless, and I would say evil, intent," he said.
But Johnson said activists follow biosecurity measures that are greater than the industry standard. He and other critics say the law targets undercover investigations that expose poor conditions for animals and turn public opinion against the meat industry.
Two previous Iowa laws that targeted undercover livestock investigations, passed in 2012 and 2019, have been put on hold amid legal challenges. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rule soon on a federal judge's decision that the initial law was unconstitutional because it criminalized protected speech.
Meanwhile, Iowa lawmakers moved this week to target Johnson’s tactics again by enhancing penalties for people who place surveillance equipment while trespassing and who take unauthorized samples from livestock for disease testing. The governor could soon sign the bill into law.
Johnson, a researcher with the group Direct Action Everywhere, last year placed recording equipment at another Iowa Select Farms property and documented company workers using heat and steam to kill thousands of hogs in what he called a barbaric practice.
The company defended the method, known as ventilation shutdown, as a veterinary-approved way to depopulate its farms after the COVID-19 pandemic slowed production at plants and left nowhere for the animals to go. But Iowa Select stopped using the practice shortly after Johnson's expose. Prosecutors dropped related charges against Johnson after the company said it did not want to testify at trial.
In December, Johnson posed as the CEO of Smithfield Foods during a live interview on Fox Business, warning that farms "can sometimes be petri dishes for new diseases" and pledging $500 million annually to offset the environmental impact of the meat industry. Anchor Maria Bartiromo said on the air that she was "punked."
Johnson said that he will likely use the charge to challenge the constitutionality of the new law.
Justin Merceau, a University of Denver law professor who has been involved in challenging “ag-gag” laws in Iowa and elsewhere, said it’s stunning that lawmakers responded to Johnson’s expose of hog deaths not by banning the practice but by going after the messenger. He said Johnson could someday be seen as a transformational figure for his work informing the public about the meat industry.
“He is doing the work on the underbelly of this beast that has been too dirty, too controversial and too risky for most people,” Merceau said. “He has that appetite and fearlessness. I imagine he is public enemy No. 1.”