Americans could barely believe their eyes when shown the sickening mistreatment of downer cows at a Southern California slaughter plant earlier this year. An investigator for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) went undercover there and documented ailing dairy cows unable to walk being brutalized in order to get them into the slaughter area. Government inspectors and plant management either missed the abuse or allowed it to go on. After the disturbing video came to light, criminal charges were filed against plant workers, the nation’s largest-ever meat recall was initiated, and then the U.S. Agriculture Secretary announced on May 20th that his agency would no longer allow the meat from downer cattle onto our food plates.
This investigation shows us we cannot always wait for the government and the leaders of the factory farming industry to protect animals from abuse or to guard us from food safety threats. That’s why a coalition including The HSUS and other animal protection groups, veterinarians, environmentalists, family farmers, and food safety advocates led an effort in which nearly 800,000 Californians signed petitions to place an anti-cruelty ballot initiative on the November 2008 ballot.
The principle behind the ‘Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act’ is simple: All animals deserve humane treatment, including those raised for food. Specifically, the measure seeks to afford animals raised for food the opportunity to turn around and extend their limbs. It will prevent three of the worst factory farming abuses: veal crates for young male calves, gestation crates for breeding pigs, and battery cages for egg-laying hens.
It is cruel and inhumane to confine animals throughout their lives in cages or crates so small that they cannot turn around or stretch their limbs. On factory farms, veal calves are chained by the neck and confined in tiny stalls; pigs are kept in metal cages called gestation crates that are barely larger than their bodies; and several hens are crammed into a battery cage with each bird having less floor space than a letter-sized sheet of paper. Confining animals in these cages and crates is worse than you or I being forced to live in a middle airplane seat for our entire lives.
The greatest nation in the world, with the world’s most innovative farmers, can do better than these severe confinement systems. Family farmers know food quality is enhanced by more humane farming methods, and they know there is a balance between animal care and economics. And increasingly major retailers like Wolfgang Puck, and even Burger King are demanding more humanely-produced products and phasing in the sale of products from farmers who do not confine animals in tiny cages.
The prestigious Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production – an independent panel chaired by former Kansas Governor John Carlin and that included former U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and leading veterinarians and farmers – recently issued a report about the state of animal agribusiness in America and said the California ballot measure includes “the types of modest animal welfare public policy improvements that the Commissioners recommend implementing.” In its report, the Commission said, “Practices that restrict natural motion, such as sow gestation crates, induce high levels of stress in the animals and threaten their health, which in turn may threaten human health.” It’s also on the basis of human health concerns that the Center for Food Safety and the Union of Concerned Scientists have also endorsed the California ballot measure.
Arizona and Florida voters approved ballot initiatives to phase out these types of crates. And lawmakers in Colorado and Oregon have done the same. The European Union has already passed legislation against veal crates, barren battery cages, and gestation crates, and these regulations now apply to all of its 27 nations – which now represent more than 450 million people.
These modest reforms won’t be costly to implement. The egg industry’s own California-based economist reports that producing cage-free eggs costs less than one penny per egg more. According to California’s Legislative Analyst, the fiscal impact of this initiative is limited to minor costs that will be offset by revenue from fines. This ballot measure gives farmers until 2015 — a full six years — to phase in more humane production practices.
Reducing the immense suffering that factory farming inflicts on animals is simply a matter of common decency. And cramming animals into giant factory farms is bad for the environment and for human health. Vote “yes” this fall on the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.
Wayne Pacelle is president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States.