Friday, June 14, 2024

By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block

In the most important farm animal welfare debate of the 21st century so far―the U.S. Supreme Court case regarding California’s Proposition 12—it was beyond disconcerting that the Biden administration put itself on the wrong side of progress by backing the advocates of cruelty and bottom-of-the-barrel pork production. The producers fighting Proposition 12 are trying to maintain the status quo of using intensive confinement systems such as gestation crates—metal cages so small pregnant pigs can’t even turn around for months on end and have been documented chewing on the bars until their mouths bleed from constant frustration. Those who don't feel like meeting the public’s demand for more humane treatment of farm animals are fighting Proposition 12 every way they can.

Now, the Biden administration’s failure is being compounded by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who is out stumping for zero-welfare pork producers in their efforts to use the Farm Bill to obliterate Proposition 12 and similar laws in other states. And the White House should stop him before he does any further damage to the administration’s reputation and policies on animal welfare. When President Biden took office, his administration had the opportunity to reverse course from the Trump administration’s amicus brief supporting that faction of the pork industry fighting Proposition 12. Instead, Biden’s Solicitor General filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a challenge to California’s Proposition 12.

Now, as Congress moves to finalize the Farm Bill, Secretary Vilsack is recklessly seeking to undermine the interests of thousands of farmers across the country and major public health associations who have all taken a decisive stand against the cruel and dangerous confinement of farm animals.

At its heart, Vilsack’s approach is profoundly undemocratic because it ignores the millions of voters and consumers who have rejected the cruelty of extreme animal confinement at both the ballot box and the supermarket. Moreover, it’s a slap in the face to small family farmers and forward-thinking corporate actors in food production and retail who support more humane standards in agriculture and have made substantial investments in crate-free and cage-free systems. These are parties whose interests Vilsack is also charged to protect, but he’s ignoring them and parroting the misleading claims of the National Pork Producers Council instead.

Vilsack’s use of the word “chaos” is particularly disingenuous, especially considering how he referred to similar efforts in the 2014 Farm Bill to block state laws on intensive confinement as “troublesome in that it would create legal challenges and confusion in the market place….It’s one that we have a lot of concerns about.” If anything, momentum to end caged cruelty has grown since then: 15 states spanning the political spectrum 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. Across the country, American voters and/or their elected representatives have rejected extreme confinement; it’s the laggard producers Vilsack seems determined to serve who are sowing chaos. The marketplace, consistent with voter preference and consumer demand, is sorting itself out, and Vilsack needs to end his efforts to drown out the basic claim for decent treatment of animals that this section of the industry is determined to reject.

It’s disturbing that as the former governor of Iowa, Vilsack would be so dismissive of the sovereignty of states to govern in the best interests of their citizens when it comes to such fundamental matters as animal welfare and public health. On the other hand, Iowa has long occupied the bottom third of states when it comes to animal protection laws, and its state legislature has gone to great lengths to favor and shield intensive confinement practices in agriculture over the last quarter century. We had hopes that Vilsack would be more attentive to public opinion concerning animal welfare as head of the USDA. But he has dashed those hopes.

A forward-thinking USDA leader would have moved to embrace the enormous economic opportunities that humane laws and corporate supply chain policies have opened up in the wake of successful campaigns to halt agribusiness cruelties such as the gestation crate and the battery cage. He’d listen to the market leaders who are committed to meeting emerging public demand for products that are not the result of intensive confinement cruelty, and he’d take account of the shifting corporate models now moving to meet the same demand. But that’s not Secretary Vilsack.

It's a shame, especially considering that President Biden took office with one of the strongest animal welfare records of any elected official in American history, a consistent champion for our cause for decades. In stark contrast, his secretary of agriculture has chosen to serve the worst actors in American agriculture―the pork conglomerates that support the cruelest practices and that, in turn, are counting on Secretary Vilsack to sustain their morally bankrupt business models.

They are getting what they want, too, as the secretary is working overtime for these foot-dragging interests. Vilsack is doing so even though he knows that congressional support for the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act and other measures targeting laws like Proposition 12 is weak and he doubts there is the political capacity to do something about it.

In fact, that’s the one thing Vilsack’s right about; there are but 14 senators and 37 representatives co-sponsoring the EATS Act, not one of them a member of Vilsack’s own party. By contrast, more than 200 federal legislators on both sides of the aisle oppose this language or anything like it. Vilsack should do the math. Blocking state laws on intensive confinement is a poison pill in the Farm Bill, particularly given how tight the margins are for getting a package over the finish line.

There’s a reason that House Agriculture chair Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and others hostile to Proposition 12 are attempting to shoehorn language into the Farm Bill; it’s the only way they can foist this shakedown on the American public, and the sight of a Democratic agency head aiding and abetting such a power grab is a sad one.

Industry capture of the USDA is nothing new, of course. But in Vilsack’s case, it has reached a new low. And that’s an insult to animals and the people who care about their welfare.  

You can urge Vilsack to respect the wishes of American voters and consumers and end his rallying for nullification of democratically approved farm animal welfare protection laws in our states.   

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