Iowa Has a New Food Operation Trespass Law

June 22, 2020 | Kitt Tovar

On June 10, 2020, Governor Reynolds signed SF 2413 into law. The law went into effect immediately. Among other things,[i] the bill added new Iowa Code § 716.7A to prohibit “food operation trespass”:

A person commits food operation trespass by entering or remaining on the property of a food operation without the consent of a person who has real or apparent authority to allow the person to enter or remain on the property.

A person who commits a first offense is guilty of an aggravated misdemeanor. A second and subsequent offense is a Class "D" Felony. The purpose of the new law is to protect biosecurity and the safety of the food supply chain. Critics of the bill allege that several definitions are too broad and vague and may have unintended consequences. The law defines “food operation” as any of the following:

(1) A location where a food animal is produced, maintained, or otherwise housed or kept, or processed in any manner.

(2) A location other than as described in subparagraph (1) where a food animal is kept, including an apiary, livestock market, vehicle or trailer attached to a vehicle, fair, exhibition, or a business operated by a person licensed to practice veterinary medicine pursuant to chapter 169.

(3) A location where a meat food product, poultry product, milk or milk product, eggs or an egg product, aquatic product, or honey is prepared for human consumption, including a food processing plant, a slaughtering establishment operating under the provisions of 21 U.S.C. § 451 et seq. or 21 U.S.C. § 601 et seq.; or a slaughtering establishment subject to state inspection as provided in chapter 189A.

(4) A food establishment or farmers market that sells or offers for sale a meat food product, poultry product, milk or milk product, eggs or an egg product, aquatic product, or honey.

Iowa Code § 716.7A(1)(d). This definition is intended to apply to normal livestock operations; however, several legislators during debate questioned whether grocery stores, restaurants, or school cafeterias might be considered a “food operation” under the bill.

Previous Trespass Laws

The food operation trespass law follows two previously-enacted Iowa laws making it a crime to trespass on animal facilities and crop operations. In 2012, the Iowa Legislature passed Iowa Code § 717A.3A, which prohibited agricultural production facility fraud. This law prohibited persons from obtaining access to animal production facilities under “false pretenses.” It also prohibited making false statements to get a job with an animal production facility with the “intent to commit unauthorized acts” on the premises.

On January 9, 2019, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa declared this law unconstitutional in Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Reynolds, No.4:17-cv-00362 (S.D. Iowa 2019). Specifically, the court ruled that the speech implicated in the law—false statements and misrepresentations—was protected by the First Amendment. Acknowledging that this finding may be “disquieting,” the court stated that “one of the costs of the First Amendment is that it protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace.” Although not all false statements are constitutionally protected, the court ruled that the ones suppressed by the Iowa law were protected because they did not cause a “legally cognizable harm” or provide “material gain” to the speaker. This case was one in a series of recent federal courts rulings invalidating so-called “ag gag” laws around the country. The State appealed the decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, where the case remains pending.

In response, the Iowa Legislature passed a new agricultural production facility trespass law, SF 519, which went into effect March 14, 2019. This law criminalizes the use of deception to (1) gain access to or (2) obtain employment with an agricultural production facility “with the intent to cause physical or economic harm or other injury.” In other words, the State must prove a specific intent to cause actual harm or injury to obtain a conviction under the 2019 law. Five advocacy groups filed a lawsuit challenging the law in April, and on December 2, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a preliminary injunction preventing Iowa from enforcing the new Iowa Code § 717.3B, pending a ruling on the merits. The parties have filed motions for summary judgment, and the case remains pending.

Other Iowa Trespass Laws  

Trespassing in Iowa can come with both civil and criminal penalties. In general, if a person commits trespass, he or she is guilty of a simple misdemeanor. Trespassers who commit more than $300 of damage are guilty of a serious misdemeanor. Iowa Code § 716.8(2). Private citizens can bring civil lawsuits against trespassers for any damage caused.

Iowa law specifically prohibits trespassing onto an animal production facility. Entering onto such an operation without permission is prohibited if the individual intends to disrupt operations or injure an animal. Iowa Code § 717A.2. A person is guilty of a simple misdemeanor if the damage does not exceed fifty dollars. Additionally, a person who willfully uses a pathogen with the intent to threaten crop or animal health is guilty of a class “B” felony. Id. at 717A.4.


New Iowa Code § 716.7A is more similar to Iowa’s general trespass laws than to previous so-called “ag-gag” laws. These laws criminalized false statements and use of deception to gain access to farms. The new law prohibits the action of trespassing and does not require a specific intent. We will watch for future legal challenges to the new law.


[i] Other components of the new law include granting IDALS the authority to address the issue of feral swine and prevent foreign animal disease outbreaks. We will detail other sections of this bill in separate articles.