Absent Federal Policy, States Take Lead on Animal Welfare

With hard-won federal gains in the balance, states might be the next battleground for animal welfare reform.

Animal Welfare, Food Policy, Food Safety

In the opening weeks of the Trump administration, the state of animal welfare—as with so much other policy—is in upheaval. On February 9, the administration froze the implementation of the just-passed Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP)—the only comprehensive federal law that regulates the welfare of animals raised for food.

The freeze comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) removing Animal Welfare Act inspection reports from its website. These cover compliance (and violations) of facilities that raise animals commercially for sale as pets, for biomedical research, and for zoos and circuses—but not those raised for food. In fact, only animals on the way to slaughter and in the slaughterhouse are covered under existing national law.

The USDA says it removed the data for privacy reasons and because of ongoing litigation. In response, PETA and half a dozen other animal rights groups have filed suit against the USDA, charging the agency with violating the Freedom of Information Act. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is also taking steps toward legal action, and Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), calling it a “transparency issue,” has demanded that the USDA immediately restore this data. Meanwhile, activists have recovered the deleted data and made it publicly available at thememoryhole2.org. Yesterday, a bipartisan group of 101 U.S. Representatives sent a letter to the White House protesting the move and demanding the data be reinstated.

In a press release, the USDA explained that the Trump administration is delaying the OLPP rule “to ensure the new policy team has an opportunity to review the rules.” But organic food producers and animal welfare and food safety advocates point to the long process of developing the updated rule and its significance to growing consumer interest in farm animal welfare. “The rule has been fully vetted and has undergone the public comment process and scrutiny of federal budget watchdogs,” said the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in a statement.

“It’s extremely concerning,” said Center for Food Safety (CFS) organic and animal policy senior manager  Cameron Harsh, denouncing the recent actions as an “attack on transparency” and an attempt “to deny the public access to information they want to know and take action on.”

States Lead the Way on Animal Welfare

As national standards for food animal welfare are either absent or left in the crosshairs, many advocates are looking to the states, where policies have been initiated to fill this gap and meet consumer demand. This is good news for the safety of everything from milk and eggs to burgers and bacon.

This past November, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a measure banning in-state sales of products from confined calves, hens, and pigs. Ten other states have banned this type of animal confinement, but so far, Massachusetts and California are the only two that also bar sales of any such products.

“State laws can have a powerful impact in pushing the federal government,” as can those from retailers, said CFS’s Harsh. And he explained,“The welfare of food animals has direct implications for food safety, public health, and the environment.” Crowded or unsafe conditions can be breeding grounds for pathogens, which leads to increased use of antibiotics, a potentially world-changing risk to public health. Animals that are sick or distressed due to abusive or unsafe conditions entering the food supply also brings serious food safety risks.

Report Details State Gains and Practices

According to a recent report by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), “more than three-quarters of all states have significantly improved their animal protection laws,” in the past five years. ALDF’s report ranks state animal welfare policies from best to worst: Illinois, Oregon, Maine, California, and Rhode Island lead the pack, while North Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Iowa, and Kentucky bring up the rear.

But what exactly does animal welfare mean when it comes to farm animals? This discussion underlies much of the debate over food animal welfare regulations, and recent “right-to-farm” policies—often supported by large-scale agriculture interests—that shield farmers from lawsuits over farming practices.

While requiring the humane treatment of animals might seem like a no-brainer, when it comes to food animals it often becomes controversial, said Lora Dunn, staff attorney for ALDF’s criminal justice program. As she explained, some in the agricultural industry maintain that, “certain common farming practices that might seem cruel to a layperson are simply necessary.” These include gestation crates for pigs, battery cages for hens, de-beaking egg-laying birds, and tail-docking dairy cows.

One opponent of regulating such practices is Protect the Harvest executive director Brian Klippenstein, who was tapped as a Trump administration USDA transition team member. Others working to oppose such regulation include the Missouri Farm Bureau, and Oklahoma Farm Bureau—and other state-level Farm Bureau groups.

A growing number of consumers also oppose these practices. “We’ve seen massive consumer demand in the past year or two … for high standards for animal welfare,” said Suzanne McMillan, ASPCA farm animal welfare campaign content director. And increasingly, those buying food for restaurants, grocery stores, commercial catering, and school districts are adopting such policies.

Steps Forward—and Back—at the State Level

While the ALDF report doesn’t single out farm-animal laws or regulations, Dunn noted that states with the highest rankings “will also be the best for farmed animals.” The reverse is true as well, said Dunn. States rated among the five worst in ALDF’s analysis lack laws and protections that the leading states have adopted.

Those ranked last have inadequate standards of basic care (Iowa, Wyoming, Kentucky), no mandatory reporting of suspected cruelty by veterinarians and/or certain other professionals (Utah, Wyoming, Iowa), and have passed so-called ag-gag laws (North Dakota, Utah, Iowa) that criminalize whistle-blowing and other undercover reporting of animal abuse on commercial farms, like those already enacted in Kansas, Missouri, and Montana.

Some states (Colorado, Montana, New Mexico) have been trying to add “quick reporting” provisions to their ag-gag laws, requiring any abuse to be reported within, for example, 48 hours of it occurring. “These were aimed at shutting down long-term investigations to show systemic problems,” explained Food & Water Watch assistant director Patty Lovera.

Bills that would regulate use of drones for farm surveillance may also be coming up this year in Utah and New Mexico, said Kevin O’Neill, ASPCA vice-president for state legislation.

“In the past few years, ag-gag bills have kind of diminished, but in their place we’ve tended to see right-to-farm legislation,” said O’Neil. In his view, “The worst of this enshrines practices and blocks changes in [existing] standards.” These measures can also provide support for “increasing industrialization and factory farming without providing details,” added ASPCA’s McMillan.

Still, between 2015 and 2016, “16 states improved their scores,” said Dunn.

What’s Next?

When it comes to nationwide improvements in food animal welfare, McMillan points to the currently frozen OLPP as the “first comprehensive [national] standards for farm animal treatment,” that represent “a watershed moment for animals.”

But this sentiment is not universal. The National Chicken Council and National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) are among those that disagree with the standards. The NPPC said it “opposes efforts to dictate to farmers how best to raise and care for their animals,” and argues that “animal welfare is not germane under the Organic Foods Production Act,” that the USDA lacks clear authority to issue this rule, which the organization says will have “a negative effect on the cost and availability of organic livestock and poultry.”

Time will tell whether the Trump administration’s delay will be a 60-day pause or will substantively affect the policy. But Food & Water Watch’s Lovera sees this and the USDA removal from its website of Animal Welfare Act compliance data as part of “a troubling trend.”

But when it comes to public sentiment, “People don’t want animals tortured in extreme confinement.” said John Goodwin, senior director of the HSUS’s “Stop Puppy Mills” campaign. “Significant portions of those industries will have to get with the program and realize it’s the 21st century,” he said. “We’re winning, but we still have a long way to go.”

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  1. Bret
    Friday, February 17th, 2017
    The NPPC argues that "animal welfare is not germane under the Organic Foods Production Act." Why is that, do you suppose? Could it be that the OFPA was heavily influenced by large-scale farming interests who lobbied heavily for the exclusion of any meaningful animal welfare provisions in order to be able to slap the "USDA Organic" label on their products. Now they take advantage of a niche market that had previously been enjoyed by a (literally) grass-roots movement many of whose early pioneers practiced humane animal treatment as a matter of course because it fell into the spirit of what it meant to be organic. Of course, you can't quantify and regulate that spirit, which is precisely why organic has completely lost its meaning now that the USDA owns that little green and white sticker.
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