By Kay Henderson
DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - The Iowa state Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to impose penalties on animal rights activists caught trying to get a job at a farm or animal production facility in order to gather evidence such as cruelty to animals.
Senator Joe Seng, a Democrat, said animal rights activists with an agenda to expose conditions inside livestock confinements can expose the animals to disease.
"People are trying to get into these places, saying they're a plumber or they're this or that, they're going to take care of your livestock with no intention of that whatsoever. They're trying to bring down this business," Seng said.
The Senate voted 40 to 10 to charge people caught in those situations with a serious misdemeanor.
The few opponents of the proposed law said it would turn whistleblowers exposing legitimate complaints into criminals at the expense of public health.
The attempt to legislate penalties follows a rash of animal rights activists -- led by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) -- infiltrating what they call "factory farms" including chicken and egg, hog and cattle production and processing facilities.
In one recent example, McDonald's stopped buying from Sparboe, an egg supplier for its McMuffin sandwiches, after an undercover investigation by animal rights group Mercy For Animals found dead hens in cages and living chicks being discarded in plastic bags with dead ones. Sparboe unwittingly hired a Mercy For Animals activist to work at its facility.
Animal rights activists and consumer groups have recently won a string of victories against so-called factory farms.
Earlier this month, McDonald's said it asked pork suppliers to phase out the use of crates confining sows while they are raising piglets.
Also last year, the Humane Society and U.S. egg producers agreed to work together to essentially double the size of the cages that the 280 million hens involved in U.S. egg production spend their lives in.
Alarmed by the activists, the Iowa House of Representatives last year voted to establish a prison sentence of up to 10 years for people caught going into a livestock confinement facility to take pictures or video of the animals and those who are caring for the livestock.
Members of the Iowa House said that chamber is likely to accept the Senate bill establishing the new penalties.
PETA could not immediately be reached for comment on the proposal.
(Editing by Greg McCune)