First Amendment

Undercover Animal Rights Investigation Snares Iowa State Senator Who Sponsored State's Unconstitutional Ag-Gag Law

If you think the worse thing you can do to a pig is kill it, footage from Rozenboom's farm will disabuse you of that notion.


Last week a California-based animal rights group released gruesome photos and other evidence it says it gathered during an undercover investigation it carried out last April at an Iowa pig farm.

The disgusting photos, which you can view here, variously show overcrowding, pigs suffering from abscesses and other open sores, severed limbs scattered on the facility floor, and dead and dying pigs. Additionally, the group says the air inside the facility was "noxious."

The undercover investigative report, conducted by the group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), which bills itself as a "global grassroots animal rights network," found what DxE says are horrific conditions at the Rosewood Pork Farm.

"Footage shot by DxE shows the brutal toll of animal agriculture—conditions which spell an agonizing death for many Rosewood Pork pigs, and a life of continual suffering for them all," the report declares.

While the name of the farm isn't particularly noteworthy, its owner is Iowa State Sen. Ken Rozenboom (R). He's both a leader in the state's agricultural community and a "leading supporter" of Iowa's reprehensible and unconstitutional agricultural gag (ag-gag) law—which is intended to stifle critical reporting on agricultural facilities and practices.

"Ag-gag laws, which are on the books in eight states, including Idaho, are laws that effectively ban journalists, whistleblowers, and activists from conducting or sharing the results of undercover investigations at agricultural and livestock processing facilities," I wrote in a 2016 blog post that discussed why I had organized fellow law-school faculty in submitting an amicus brief opposing Idaho's ag-gag law.

In that brief, we explained the First Amendment and consumer-protection harms ag-gag laws cause, arguing that they "ultimately den[y] consumers a marketplace of ideas in which they are free to weigh competing voices and decide for themselves the truth about food production."

While Idaho's ag-gag law was eventually overturned, similar laws are still on the books in a handful of states, including Iowa, where a court challenge has halted enforcement of the law.

This week, State Sen. Rozenboom acknowledged at least some truth behind the shocking allegations. He conceded the investigation revealed "careless animal husbandry practices that violate acceptable animal care protocols."

"I acknowledge that there were caretaker deficiencies," Rozenboom told the Des Moines Register. "There were things that not ought to have happened, that we're not OK with. I'm ashamed of it."

But he also remained defiant.

"This type of dangerous, illegal activity cannot be condoned," Rozenboom said of the animal-rights group's investigation. He also says he'll ask the state to prosecute DxE investigators on trespassing charges.

"While acknowledging some problems at the facility, state Sen. Ken Rozenboom said Thursday the investigation was a 'professional hit job' designed to undermine consumer support for the pork industry," the Register reports.

That's an incredibly shortsighted and tone-deaf comment. Rozenboom must know that the conditions alleged to have existed at his farm are what really undermines consumer support for the pork industry. If the DxE investigation had captured a well-run operation that showed a modicum of regard for the animals before their slaughter, no one would be talking about Rozenboom's farm. 

Various reports indicate Rozenboom was leasing the facility in question to another farmer during the period when the DxE investigation took place. Rozenboom says he ended the business relationship with the lessee last year at least in part over concerns about the farmer's treatment of pigs.

"He said they made the switch because they were concerned about how the former operator cared for his animals and maintained the building," the Register reports. "He pointed to delays in removing dead pigs from the facility as an example."

While there is absolutely no indication Rozenboom participated in any animal abuse that may have occurred on his farm, I've also seen no indications that Rozenboom reported the "concern[ing]" actions of his unnamed lessee to law enforcement or state regulators.

If there was a whistle to blow, Rozenboom appears to have kept it in his pocket. That fact alone makes the DxE investigation a vitally important contribution to the marketplace of ideas.

The undercover investigation was led by Matt Johnson, a DxE official who hails from Iowa. I asked Johnson last week about DxE's goals, including whether he and his colleagues want to end all animal agriculture and meat-eating. He didn't mince words.

"The short answer is yes, we want to end animal agriculture," Johnson told me by email. He also says that he and DxE believe all livestock farming is inherently inhumane. "We don't believe in humane animal ag," Johnson writes.

I applaud DxE for exposing what appear by every indication to be brutal, disgusting, inhumane, neglectful, and monstrous conditions at the pig farm. DxE's investigation benefits animals and American consumers alike. But my boisterous applause ends right about there.

For DxE, investigations such as this one are a means to an end. And that end is the adoption of new laws that outlaw all animal agriculture and completely banish meat from the American diet. I could not disagree more with DxE's goal to end all animal agriculture. I believe every person has a right to make their own food choices—whatever those may be.

I strongly support the right of farmers everywhere to raise livestock for food, a position I've held for years. I also believe that the overwhelming majority of food producers in this country take proper care of the animals they raise for food. In 2016, I toured a pig farm in Iowa and found it predictably smelly but otherwise clean and humane.

After a recent ruling that enjoined Iowa from enforcing its ag-gag law, Rozenboom told the Gazette he was "personally very disgusted that we can't protect honest, hardworking Iowans but we'll protect criminals and people that lie for a living."

This is nonsense. It is entirely possible to support investigations like the one DxE conducted and to oppose the group's ultimate goal; just as it is possible to support animal agriculture and the people who make it possible while opposing ag-gag laws and the people who treat animals as Rozenboom's farm lessee reportedly did.