Friday, May 10, 2024

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

We now know for certain that the Farm Bill to be considered by the U.S. House Agriculture Committee contains language that seeks to undo more than a dozen state laws on humane treatment of farm animals including California’s Proposition 12, widely considered the nation’s strongest law on farm animal welfare. The groundbreaking ballot initiative was voted into law by a wide margin, with more than 7.5 million voters supporting it, and was later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court after the pork industry lobby filed legal challenges.

The provision in the proposed Farm Bill—a five-year legislative roadmap for how food is produced across the country—could not only undo Proposition 12, but also threatens to abolish other state-level standards for farm animal welfare by congressional fiat. This puts us in the animal protection fight of a generation.

This is a fight with enormous implications for countless billions of animals raised for food, now and in the future. It is a fight of consequence for millions of Americans who have signaled time and again their support for animal welfare standards and the associated public health benefits at the state level. And it is a fight in which we’re going to need your help and your action.

Nix the “fix” to Proposition 12 >>

House Agriculture Committee Chair G.T. Thompson, R-Pa., has expressed his absolute determination to “fix the problem” of Proposition 12 via the Farm Bill in a way that would limit states’ rights to legislate on farm animal welfare and the sale of cruel products within their borders.

There is simply no need for the “fix” Rep. Thompson is touting. Consumers, who are also registered voters, have spoken clearly about what they want in the marketplace, and he ought to have taken a hands-off approach consistent with the philosophy of many of his colleagues—Republicans, Democrats and Independents. In effect, he’s intervening in a battle within the pork industry, one that pits the vanguard―future-minded producers who have decisively moved to meet new market opportunities consistent with rising consumer demand―against the backward-facing, factory farm operations trying to obliterate all welfare standards in pork production and take all other state humane, health and safety regulations down with them.

A diverse set of more than 5,000 entities―including more than 4,000 farmers and producers around the country; nearly 200 organizations; and more than 1,000 lawmakers, veterinarians, legal experts and others―have written to their federal legislators opposing congressional interference with state standards on farm animal welfare.

Thompson’s efforts to tip the scales for the pork industry’s laggard faction are especially perplexing because he’s been hearing from many farmers, producers and citizens in his own state who want him to defend and protect animal welfare standards, and, it would seem, he’s ignoring them.

Last June, for example, over one hundred Pennsylvania farmers wrote to Thompson, asking him to steer clear of measures to negate state standards. The farmers who signed that letter are producing for a rapidly emerging market that demands crate-free pork, cage-free eggs and a more humane animal husbandry, a market that consumers, corporate suppliers and food service providers all favor. By these farmers’ and food industry insiders’ own account, they’re thriving; wiping out the state laws on which they based their investments will pull the rug out from under them, as they said in their letter.

Thompson hails from Pennsylvania, a state where major producers and suppliers of pork and eggs have embraced local, humane standards in their business models. The Clemens Group, the fifth-largest fresh pork producer in the U.S., has gone all-in on higher standards, with great benefits to its annual revenue.

Clemens has made substantial practical and financial commitments as a matter of conviction and a keen sense for where the marketplace is headed. Among other things, the company recruited a group of scientists and veterinary experts to help with its transition of mother pigs from gestation crates to open pen systems, so that pigs, who are highly intelligent and social animals, have freedom to roam and interact with one another and have good access to food and water.

As for the idea of a “fix” to laws and standards that markedly improve animals’ lives, company president Brad Clemens told one audience in Pennsylvania: "Believe in our ability to figure it out. Leave the federal government out of it. It’s our issue.”

Pork producer Brent Hershey, who supplies pork to Clemens, considers the move to group housing for sows a success story that has benefitted his business. He also emphasized his recognition of the direction of market demand and significant investment in creating more humane group housing for pigs: “Our plan to move to it was a permanent move. Once we made the change, we can’t go back.”

Influential Pennsylvania egg suppliers have expressed similar views. The CEO of Sauder’s Eggs, Mark Sauder, recently wrote that the approach being considered by some in Congress “would unfairly penalize those who have invested in these new markets.” Giving Nature Foods president John Baker also took issue with Thompson’s decision to undermine state animal welfare laws that have “greatly benefitted Pennsylvania’s agricultural sectors, especially the egg and pork industries.”

Chris Herr, the Executive Vice President of PennAg Industries, a major statewide trade association with 500 member entities, acknowledged the impact of California’s law in getting producers to listen to what the public is saying. Key Pennsylvania producers “recognized what consumers wanted and made changes that complied with the Prop 12 philosophy” Herr told Lancaster Farming. “So we’ve gone to open-pen housing and made changes to the production systems that we have, and we’d hate to see them be rolled back.”

Thompson’s provision has nothing to do with the kind of farmers most Americans want to see flourish in the future: Those farmers do not raise their animals in cages so small that the animals can barely take a step in any direction; and they don’t use farming practices that increase risks of disease transmission that could spark the next pandemic.

But Thompson’s provision isn’t concerned with what most Americans want to see; instead, it is a favor for producers of low-grade factory-farmed pork and eggs, excusing them from complying with the public health and animal welfare standards being set in one state after another. It’s a concession to domestic and foreign interests that raise animals in industrial-style conditions and all the horrors that entails. Spanning the political spectrum, 15 states already have laws addressing cruel intensive confinement of farm animals, and 80% of American voters—including nearly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats—support enactment in their own states of a law to protect farm animals.

Rep. Thompson is a worthy representative in many respects, but he has made a grave leadership error in this case. We’re counting on his colleagues in Congress to help him set a better course, and on you to speak out in favor of humane treatment of farm animals

Kitty Block is CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.