Voters in Massachusetts voters just passed a far reaching law to protect farm animals from extreme confinement. Even the governor, Charlie Baker, voted for it.
The ballot measure targets practices that severely constrain animals for virtually their entire lives, including the use of veal crates for baby calves, gestation crates for mother pigs and battery cages for egg-laying hens. Eleven states have passed laws banning one or more of those practices. The Massachusetts measure would prohibit all three, and then go further. It would also ban the sale of meat and eggs produced using those methods, even if the animals were farmed outside the state.
The measure passed by a wide margin, reflecting the increasing upset that voters feel when they are made aware of farm animal suffering under the harsh conditions of large scale industrial farming. While several agribusiness groups opposed the initiative, they spent little to campaign against it, since presumably they knew of the moral outrage of the voters.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court approved this ballot initiative proposing that Massachusetts prohibit breeding pigs, calves raised for veal, and egg-laying hens from being held in confined spaces. The initiative prohibits the sale of eggs, veal, or pork of a farm animal confined in spaces that prevent the animal from lying down, standing up, extending its limbs, or turning around. The measure proposes a maximum fine of $1,000 for each violation which could add up very fast on a factory farm.
Of course, even with this law the animals can hardly be said to be living natural lives. The bill may remove the worst excesses, but conditions will still be harsh and the animal will still end up in the slaughterhouse. The best thing we can do for the animals is still to go veg!
It seems maybe we started to celebrate too soon. Along with many animal welfare organizations and vegetarian associations, we thought that since the egg producers and consumer groups had reached a solid agreement which had strong bi-partisan backing, that progress would finally be made. However, federal standards for the welfare of egg-laying hens suffered a defeat when they failed to make it into the farm bill legislation voted out of the agriculture committees in the U.S. House and Senate. The full Senate debated its version of the farm bill this week. Attempts at floor amendments failed, but the standards could come back to life when the farm bill reaches the joint House-Senate conference committee.
Pork and beef producers, however, object in principle to the notion of federal regulation of farm animal housing — even though, in this case, the egg producers themselves are asking for federal regulations as a way to pre-empt state rules that are more troublesome. When the agriculture committees of both House and Senate finished their versions of the farm bill last week, all mention of guaranteed living space for egg-laying hens had vanished.
The setback hurts even more because the agreement grew out of the voter initiative campaign to set animal welfare standards for egg-laying hens right here in Washington, and was led by our friend at the local HSUS chapter, Dan Paul.
To understand how a battery hen lives, stand here for a year.
Currently, ninety percent of America’s eggs are laid by chickens that live in long rows of metal wire cages. Each cage holds about eight hens, and they’re packed in pretty tightly. At the henhouse that Dan visited recently, owned by a family-run enterprise in Modesto, Calif., each hen has, on average, 67 square inches – less than the area of a standard sheet of paper. “These birds can’t even spread their wings,” says a senior director at the Humane Society of the United States. “These are living, feeling, sentient animals who are caught up in the food system, and at a bare minimum, they deserve not to be tortured for their entire lives; not to be immobilized to the point where they can’t even extend their limbs.”
Ever since cages became standard in the egg industry some 50 years ago, many people have been horrified by them. Despite their outrage, advocates of animal welfare weren’t able to do much against the cages. For egg producers, the cages made economic sense. They made egg production possible on an unprecedented scale, delivering cheap eggs to consumers. Advertising gimmicks, such as “naturally nested,” “free range,” or “cage free,” have little meaning because there are no legal definitions of them and no mechanism for enforcement.
In the Spring of 2011, Dan Paul, director of the Washington branch of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), launched a ballot initiative here in Washington State that would help improve the lives of 6.5 million egg-laying hens living in factory farms in our state. The public response was truly extraordinary, evidenced both by the passion and dedication of the volunteers, as well as the overwhelming positive response from the public.
What his in-state efforts resulted in, however, was an agreement with the United Egg Producers to push a joint effort to pass federal legislation, which in part would give each bird, throughout the entireUS flock, significantly more space to live. Their signature drive prompted the framework to help not only our 6.5 million birds, but every hen throughout this nation – it was a truly staggering result!
The proposed legislation, HR 3798 would culminate with hens nationwide being provided a minimum of 124 to 144 square inches of space, along with the other enrichment improvements. Remember, most birds in the US live in states that do not allow for the initiative process, so an agreement with industry to obtain a federal law is the most likely path to truly end the barren battery cage in the US.
All is not lost. Eventually public concern will win out. But you don’t have to wait until it does. You can choose to skip the eggs, thus reducing consumer demand and ultimately production as well. There are many egg substitutions on the market, and even more egg-free recipes for favorite dishes for you to enjoy. Both the chickens and your body will be glad you did!
If you care about the animals and value their lives, you’re not alone. Caring about animals has never been more popular in America. For instance, a study published in the Congressional Quarterly found that two thirds of Americans believe that an animal has a right to live free of suffering. In addition, a third of Americans are worried that existing laws are inadequate to protect animals. That same concern has also been contributing to the rise of mainstream friendly animal welfare organizations. For instance the Humane Society of the United States now boasts over 11 million members.
Recently, the growing concern has also become translated into legislation. A measure that, by 2015, bans farmers from raising egg-laying hens, veal calves, and pregnant pigs in overcrowded cages and crates so small that the poor animal can not even turn around, has passed in California by a substantial majority. Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon have passed similar laws for pigs and veal calves. Fearing a massive victory in an Ohio voter initiative, the state’s farmers have voluntarily agreed to humane reforms.
And just in the past few months, an historic national agreement was reached between HSUS and the chicken industry. Chickens across the country will finally get some federal protection under new legislation, which proposes phasing in cages that give hens up to 144 square inches of space each, compared with the 67 square inches that most hens have today. It would also mandate more humane slaughter methods, along with other improvements. Backed by both the Humane Society and the chicken industry, which was noticing the public pressure for change, this legislation is likely to pass.
So let’s take a look beyond the headlines and see what’s going on. There is a growing confluence of three currents in our society: the increasing public appreciation of and concern for animals, new scientific information confirming the reality of animal suffering along with the healthfulness of vegetarian diets, and religious and moral leaders who advocate extending moral questions to the humane treatment of animals.
Farm animals today are forced to live a much harder life than in former times. Most of today’s farm animals are raised on so-called factory farms. Modern factory farms revolve only around efficient, low-cost production, which unfortunately results in harsh conditions and greatly increased suffering for billions of farm animals. Chickens and pigs are packed into overcrowded cages so small that they can’t even turn around. Cows raised for veal are chained up their entire lives. More and more Americans are learning about these inhumane conditions. Exposes and videos showing outrageous abuses in slaughterhouses cause even the most reserved to cringe. Indeed it has often been said that if slaughterhouses had glass walls we would all be vegetarians.
Science is making its contribution too. Not only have scientists confirmed that mammals such as cows and sheep can feel pain, but now even fish have been found to have pain receptors in their brain. The Merck Veterinary Manual, the standard reference in animal science and veterinary practice, states, “Based on what is known to date, all vertebrates, and some invertebrates, experience pain in response to actual or potential tissue damage.”
In a way, researchers have known this for some time. They have been in the untenable position of testing pain medications on animals while trying to deny that they can feel pain. Over time, many Americans have become suspicious of this kind of double talk when it comes to animal suffering. Author Mathew Scully puts the matter clearly when he says “And how much simpler to drop the pretensions, call cruel things by their name.” The American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists now bluntly states that animal pain and suffering are clinically important conditions that adversely affect an animal’s quality of life both in the short and long term.
Scientists and medical researchers have also confirmed the many health advantages of a vegetarian diet. Marion Nestle, Chair of Nutrition at New York University, sums it up well when she says “There’s no question that vegetarian diets are as healthy as you can get. The evidence is so strong and overwhelming, and produced over such a long period of time, that it’s no longer debatable.”
Many religious and moral leaders have long advocated for the compassionate treatment of animals or the vegetarian diet that goes along with it. The list is, perhaps, more extensive than many realize. A short list would include John Wesley (founder of the Methodist Church), Saint Francis, and two Chief Rabbis of Israel. Founding fathers such as William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) and Thomas Paine (who started the American Revolution) spoke out boldly against cruelty to animals. In more recent times spiritual leaders such Pope John Paul II, Cardinal John Henry Newman, William Booth (founder of the Salvation Army), C.S. Lewis, Albert Einstein, Professor of Theology the Reverend Andrew Linzey, Thomas Merton (a Trappist Monk), Ghandi, Martin Luther King’s wife and oldest son, the Dalai Lama and many more have spoken out to increasingly receptive audiences.
The American public reacts against animal suffering, but they have to know about it first. The problem is that they don’t often know about it, or the information is presented to them in a way they find objectionable. Americans have big hearts. More and more will sincerely care, when they find out what happens in today’s factory farms.
Those who care are not alone. Every year, more and more people choose a vegetarian diet as a way of expressing their compassion for animals, improving their health or reducing their environmental footprint. If you’re not yet a vegetarian but would like to be, we’re here to help. Try coming to one of our monthly dinners, reading our books, The Vegetarian Solution and Say No to Meat, attending one of our free cooking and nutrition classes and enjoying our two day festival, Vegfest. By making vegetarian food choices, you will be saving farm animals with every bite and maybe, just maybe, the day will come when all the animals will be saved.