Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Tom Vilsack’s confirmation hearing to be Secretary of Agriculture was today. If he is confirmed by the full Senate, it will mark the official launch of our 2021 animal welfare agenda with the agency he will lead for a second time. But for several months already, we’ve been advancing our priorities concerning the United States Department of Agriculture with President Biden’s transition team and members of Congress. We were pleased with the new administration’s quick decision to withdraw a pending holdover rule that would have allowed an unlimited number of qualifying chicken slaughtering plants to accelerate line speed kills and birds at greater risk of injury and suffering. We hope it’s a sign of more good things to come.

For animal people, the USDA may be the most consequential federal agency of all. Its regulatory and enforcement reach extends to the treatment of animals in agriculture, slaughter plants, laboratories, puppy mills, roadside zoos, illegal animal fighting, and air, ground and commercial transportation. Regardless of the context in which those animals are used or kept, we’re going to push for USDA actions to help them all.

Vilsack’s positive achievements as USDA Secretary under President Barack Obama included rules to regulate large-scale breeders selling puppies over the Internet, prohibit the slaughter of downer calves to improve compliance with humane handling laws, strengthen animal welfare standards on organic farms, and get tough on horse soring. He also demonstrated a fundamental commitment to funding and enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act, our nation’s omnibus animal protection law, which the USDA administers.

On the other hand, the Obama-era Vilsack was too accommodating to Big Ag and factory farming, an environmental, animal welfare and public health threat of the highest order. We want to see more—a lot more—the second time around. We’ll be pressing the Secretary to confront the worst elements of intensive confinement agriculture and related problems as an immediate priority. Whether it’s factory farming, climate change, pandemic response, worker safety, racial equity, nutrition and hunger programs, or the restoration of a competitive marketplace that gives small farmers a better chance, Mr. Vilsack has an unparalleled opportunity to institute not just reform but a genuine re-orientation of the USDA.

This may not sound like the Tom Vilsack who served under President Obama. But it is the Tom Vilsack we need under President Biden. Not just animal protectionists, but all of us. Someone who will say no to Big Ag. Someone who cares about animals raised and killed for food. Someone who sees climate change as a totalizing threat and the agency he leads as a bulwark of national response. Someone committed to the well-being and safety of food system workers. Someone ready to deliver strong support for small-scale and minority farmers. Someone who puts preservation of land, water, soil and other environmental resources above profit considerations.

We cannot overestimate the scale of action necessary to transform our farming and food system in a manner suited to the urgency of our problems. Billions of animals kept on thousands of factory farms in the United States are the victims of the most extreme forms of suffering, even as the conditions in which they are kept place the safety of our food supply in jeopardy, pollute our water and air, and substantially increase the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and pandemic spread in our communities. Small, independent farmers are in crisis as increasing concentration makes it impossible for them to secure fair prices. COVID-19 has brought these and other challenges into greater relief and underscored the need for dramatic action.

Farm animal welfare is at the heart of the requests we’ve already made of the new administration. Our specific recommendations include:

  • A permanent decision to slow down slaughter plant line speeds.
  • Resurrection of the 2017 Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule, a comprehensive set of farm animal welfare standards originally developed under Tom Vilsack’s leadership but withdrawn by the USDA under former Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. In today’s hearing, Secretary Vilsack indicated his support of the organic industry and looking at past rulemakings.
  • A recalibration of existing and new federal funding to (1) prioritize research and development of cultivated and plant-based meat alternatives, which hold enormous promise for reducing animal suffering and environmental degradation and (2) support the transition away from the cruelest methods of intensive confinement by providing financial support for farmers to go cage-free for egg-laying hens and crate-free for mother pigs.
  • A federal commitment to promoting slaughter plant implementation of Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS), which renders birds unconscious in the kill line, preventing stress, injuries and pain and improving worker safety

Additional asks we’ve made of the agency focus on:

  • Reinstatement of the USDA’s 2016 horse soring rule, another regulation developed under Tom Vilsack’s leadership, to strengthen the USDA’s enforcement of the Horse Protection Act regulations by ending the Tennessee Walking horse industry’s use of cruel devices integral to soring and the failed system of industry self-policing.
  • A commitment to increased enforcement efforts pertaining to puppy mills, roadside zoos, research facilities and other entities that violate the Animal Welfare Act.
  • A return to full transparency and online publication of USDA inspection records and violation notices for licensed dog breeding operations and laboratories, and notices of horse soring violations under the Horse Protection Act.

The simple case for our determined engagement with the USDA and its new Secretary is this. The policies Vilsack champions, the budget allocations he endorses and the commitments he makes will affect the fate of tens of millions of animals, domestic and wild, in the United States. It’s worth noting too that we are not the only ones pushing Vilsack to be a different and better Secretary of Agriculture in this go-around. Family farm, union, occupational safety, environmental, civil rights, and public health organizations are also leaning in to encourage him to be the kind of leader this nation so desperately needs at the USDA. The stakes are high, and we hope to see him rise to the occasion.