These “Animal Care Standards” are a Cruel Hoax

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These “Animal Care Standards” are a Cruel Hoax

By Bee Friedlander on Animals and Society Institute

Imagine you are the owner of a large industrial farm in Michigan, one of approximately 250 that have moved into the state. Let's say you have 5500 dairy cows (or, in industry parlance "animal units") in one facility. Or, 4000 pigs confined in several massive, windowless buildings. Or, perhaps, a 2.5 million chicken egg laying facility and egg cracking operation which you want to try again to open despite being denied a permit due to community opposition some years ago.

If you were one of these large agribusinesses, you would love the bills introduced in the Michigan House and Senate, and that the Michigan House Agriculture Committee recently passed, H.B. 5127/S.B. 655 and H.B. 5128/S.B. 654.

For starters, you would have until July 2020 to comply with the regulations; for the next 11 years you would be subject to no standards concerning the welfare of your "animal units."

But there's more. Under these two bills, the legislature delegates to the Department of Agriculture the "sole authority" to determine and monitor farmed animal welfare standards, the standards themselves lifted word for word from the industry guidelines - a stunning example of conflict of interest - with an "animal care advisory council" (H.B. 5128) that itself is slanted toward industry insiders.

Here is the language of H.B. 5127:

The following standards, in the form as they exist on the effective date of the amendatory act that added this section, are adopted and incorporated by reference as the animal care standards to be recognized and utilized by the department:

(a) Pork quality assurance plus, published by the national pork board, 2007.

(b) National dairy FARM program: farmers assuring responsible management, published by the national milk producers federation, 2009.

(c) United egg producers-animal husbandry guidelines for United States egg-laying flocks, published by the united egg producers, 2008.

(d) National chicken council animal welfare guidelines, published by the national chicken council, 2005.

(e) Animal care best management practices for the care of turkeys, published by the national turkey federation, 2004.

(f) Beef quality assurance program, published by the national cattleman's beef association, 2009.

(g) Veal quality assurance program, published by the American veal association, 2001.

Although those supporting this bill label the opposition as "outsiders," plenty of home-grown Michigan groups opposed the bill in testimony taken by the Agriculture Committee earlier this summer. This included the Animal Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan (of which I'm a member), which issued an initial letter of opposition and then was asked by the Chair to elaborate on why the bills are objectionable.

Some excerpts from the letter:

  • Our major concern is that HB 5127 is a broad abdication of legislative authority to set standards for industrial agriculture. It delegates to the Department of Agriculture sole authority to regulate the health and welfare of farmed animals, and their impact on human health and the environment.
  • All of the approved standards in Section 2 come from industry groups. [The Agriculture] Committee has had the benefit of testimony ... by other organizations which have pointed out that various experts using scientific methods, have come to different conclusions about the standards of care for farm animals. By allowing the standards developed by the agribusiness industry and trade groups to become law, these other voices are marginalized.
  • By delegating this responsibility, the Michigan legislature will have greatly diminished its ability to consider the increasingly important issues of food safety, environmental health and the welfare of animals.
  • Those farms which comply with the standards are exempt from nuisance and animal cruelty laws (per the Right to Farm Act), so the authority which the legislature would be delegating to the Agriculture Department is broad indeed.

The letter concluded: "By delegating the authority to regulate this industry to the Department of Agriculture, and by codifying guidelines established by the very industry which is being regulated, the legislature is abdicating its important role in these issues, a role that the citizens of Michigan elects - and expects - its legislators to fulfill."

An eloquent and knowledgeable voice in opposition to the bill is David Favre, Professor of Law, Michigan State University College of Law. In an OpEd in the Lansing State Journal last month (and before the Agriculture Committee acted on the bill and sent it onto the Michigan House of Representatives), Prof. Favre notes that the legislation is so poorly written that it isn't clear what farms it covers, and then says:

These bills represent an extraordinary attempt of a private industry to protect itself from public scrutiny in order to maximize profit, without concern for the public's strong interest in protecting the welfare of animals raised in industrial agriculture or in retaining the ability to raise their own food animals. Without close examination of the legal or policy issues, the Legislature is apparently willing to adopt industrial standards never meant to serve as state regulations. It is a perversion of the democratic, legislative and administrative law principles under which we generally operate.

The dissenting voices are saying that the people of Michigan, like many Americans, have a growing concern for the welfare of farmed animals, along with the related issues of public health and environmental safety, and may no longer be willing to pay the price for cheap meat at any cost.

It's a shame that some legislators want to silence these voices, dismiss those concerns and distance themselves from responsibility.

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