BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho dairy industry group said Tuesday it didn't intend to deny media access to dairies when it mailed a letter to about 500 members urging them to turn down interview and tour requests.
The letter from the United Dairymen of Idaho was sent anonymously to The Associated Press late last week.
In it, co-chairs Tom Dorsey and Tony Vanderhulst advised dairy producers that there's been an increase in requests from media groups seeking to film on-farm footage since a law passed earlier this year making it illegal to secretly film animal abuse at agriculture operations.
The men recommended that dairy producers either turn down media requests or refer members of the media to dairy industry groups.
Late Tuesday, the organization's CEO Karianne Fallow issued a prepared statement saying the group wasn't trying to stop media access.
"In hindsight we understand how our Aug. 13 letter to United Dairymen of Idaho members might make someone think otherwise, but it is not the intention of the United Dairymen of Idaho to deny media access to Idaho dairies," Fallow wrote.
Dairy farm families often host tours for media, school students, health professionals and others, and organizing on-farm tours is one of the primary roles of United Dairymen, Fallow wrote.
"Our goal is to do so in a coordinated way and provide assistance to our farmers in support of the Gem State's dairy industry," Fallow wrote.
Earlier this year Idaho lawmakers passed a law making it a criminal offense for people to secretly film animal abuse at agricultural facilities. Opponents of the law, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, are suing the state contending that it curtails free speech rights.
But agriculture groups say the law is needed to prevent animal rights groups from unfairly targeting certain businesses and to protect private property rights.
The letter, which was labeled confidential, states that there has been heightened interest from the news media as a response to the legislation.
"We are working to confine and contain the nature of the requests, but encourage you to remain alert for unexpected visits to your farms," the men wrote in the letter.
The letter also provided four suggested responses if dairy farmers are contacted by the news media, including three ways to turn down requests and one way to refer reporters to the industry groups.
"Animal hygiene and farm safety are critical to my operation. We simply don't conduct tours like the one you're requesting," reads one response.
Cindy Miller, the spokeswoman for United Dairymen of Idaho, confirmed Monday that the letter was sent to about 500 dairy families statewide.
"We had some requests for dairy tours by some groups, and we just wanted to let our farm producers know what we could do to help them," Miller said.
Bob Naerebout, director of the Idaho Dairymen's Association, said Monday that the letter wasn't intended to block news media from covering the industry. Rather, he said, the industry groups wanted to let members know they had options.
"Our dairymen need to focus and want to focus on what they do best: Producing a high quality work product," Naerebout said at the time. "And they're not, shall we say, comfortable with the media."
Ritchie Eppink, an attorney for ACLU-Idaho, said the agriculture groups that pushed for the law frequently told lawmakers the dairy industry has nothing to hide.
Eppink hasn't seen the letter but was read portions of the letter during an interview with the AP.
Eppink said the suggested responses are troubling because many dairies offer tours to school children or other groups, and the letter appeared to encourage dairy farmers to misrepresent whether they give tours when speaking to the press.
"If there's really a problem with the press and others visiting these farms, then the IDA should be figuring out why that's a problem," Eppink said. "There shouldn't be anything that they're scared to show people — this is our food supply."