Looking Out For All Animals

By Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman
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Photo by law_keven/Flickr CC


Most people know NFL quarterback Michael Vick jeopardized his career and went to prison for violating animal cruelty laws. What they likely don't realize is that unlike dogs and other pets, farm animals are virtually unprotected against cruelty, no matter how extreme. While every state in the country has animal anti-cruelty statutes on the books, most explicitly exempt farm animals. We think that should change.

As just one example, consider the following. Today the shareholders of Smithfield Foods, the country's largest pork company, will gather for their annual meeting. Smithfield has been one of the most important players in hog farming's industrialization, controlling the lives and deaths of over 30 million pigs in the United States every year. This means the company also has tremendous capacity to improve the lives of animals raised for food.

All of the pigs raised for Smithfield's pork spend their entire lives in metal buildings. The vast majority of their breeding females are even more severely constrained, being kept in narrow metal cages that are only slightly larger than their bodies (called gestation crates), a practice that has been banned in the European Union because of the suffering it causes sows.

This illustrates the problem with voluntary measures to improve animal welfare. There's nothing to prevent companies from abandoning them when they become inconvenient.

Recognizing a growing unease about the conditions in industrialized farms in the United States, Smithfield announced with fanfare in 2007 that it would be phasing out the use of gestation crates for its sows. Shortly thereafter, Nicolette wrote an essay in the New York Times arguing that the company was not going far enough. But now it turns out that Smithfield won't even be getting rid of gestation crates.

In the Smithfield shareholder notice for its upcoming annual meeting, it included the following statement, indicating that it will not make good on its commitment to do away with gestation crates:

Due to recent significant operating losses incurred by our Hog Production segment, we have delayed capital expenditures for the program such that we no longer expect to complete the phase-out within ten years of the original announcement.

This illustrates the problem with voluntary measures to improve animal welfare. There's nothing that deters agribusiness companies from abandoning them when they become inconvenient.

Agricultural trade associations have long asserted that animal welfare laws are a bad idea because farmers and ranchers know best how to take care of their animals. We heartily agree. In our experience, the people who work with farm animals every day have the best sense of what is needed to ensure their welfare and the knowledge of how welfare can be protected in practice. But good animal husbandry is literally impossible in industrial set-ups.

In addition to the ubiquitous use of gestation crates, pigs in confinement buildings are never given any bedding to lie down on. Straw or other bedding is impossible because it would gum up the works of the confinement building's sewage flushing system. Animals are forced to stand and lie on concrete or grated metal flooring for their entire lives. The same is true for egg-laying hens, who are typically confined to cages so small they cannot stretch their wings.

The benefit of laws is that they create a level playing field for all farmers and ranchers. If everyone must operate under the same rules, farmers who want to provide good conditions for their animals are not put at an economic disadvantage for doing it. That's the main advantage of mandates. In fact, when the feeding of antibiotics was outlawed in Sweden in 1986, it was at the behest of the meat industry itself for precisely this reason. Similarly, we've talked with cattle ranchers who've said they wish the government would ban growth hormones for cattle because then they could afford to stop using them. If no one is allowed to do it, no one gets an upper hand from the practice.

Recently, Nicolette spoke with David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University Law School who specializes in animal law. "Farm animals need enhanced legal protection as their life conditions--their welfare--are governed by the economic pressures of the marketplace, and neither the federal law nor the state anti-cruelty laws protect them from exploitation," Favre said. "Cheaper and more 'efficient' production means less and less concern for the animals' welfare. Because of the political power of the industrial agriculture lobby it is very difficult to obtain laws that simply respect their lives, lives that they will soon give up to become human food."

Although Nicolette is a lawyer with an accompanying affection for law, we both dislike the idea of burdening America's farmers with additional laws or regulations. The profession is hard enough as it is. But the complete absence of oversight of farm animal husbandry practices has led to some extreme practices becoming commonplace, like the continual caging of hens, crating of sows, and tethering of veal calves in such a way that they can literally barely move for their entire lives.

We strongly supported laws in Florida, Arizona, California, and Colorado that outlawed some of these practices. And we favor a national farm animal welfare law like the one introduced by former Congressman Christopher Shays in the 109th Congress. We hope someone in Congress will show the courage to pick up where he left off.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/08/looking-out-for-all-animals/23784/