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Open Philanthropy Project Farm Animal Welfare Newsletter
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How Can We Improve US Policy for Farm Animals?

Farm animal welfare falls under our US policy category at the Open Philanthropy Project, yet I haven’t recommended a single US policy-specific grant to date. What gives? As a new US President is sworn in today, in this newsletter I review the obstacles and opportunities for US policy reform for farm animals.

First, the obstacles. Congress has only ever enacted two laws to protect farm animals: the Twenty-Eight Hour Law of 1873, which limits farm animal transport times, and the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act of 1958, which prescribes slaughter methods. But the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) interpreted “vehicle” in the transport law to exclude trucks, and “livestock” in the slaughter law to exclude poultry — thereby excluding more than 95% of farm animals from the laws’ protections. (In 2006, the USDA conceded that trucks are vehicles, but it still denies that chickens are livestock.) And though US senators and representatives have introduced over 50 farm animal welfare bills and resolutions in the last few decades, all have died in the agriculture committees, where politicians from factory farming states predominate. Even after the New York Times ran a front page exposé in early 2015 on abuses at a federal farm animal research station in Nebraska, a bill targeting these abuses secured the support of just ten senators. And with a new Republican Congress, there’s a risk that Rep. Steve King of Iowa will revive his 2013 attempt to add an amendment to the Farm Bill that would block states from regulating the sale of animal products based on how they were produced.

The states have traditionally been no friendlier to farm animals. Although all 50 states have felony animal cruelty laws, most exempt “customary farming practices” — an acknowledgment that routine factory farming practices would be criminal if practiced in any other context. And since 2011, ag lobbyists have pushed ag-gag laws — which seek to criminalize undercover investigations on factory farms — in 20 states, and enacted them in five (three states had passed similar laws two decades earlier). More recently, ag lobbyists have pushed “right to farm” constitutional amendments, which seek to shield factory farms from regulation.

Animal advocates have secured anti-confinement laws in 11 states, including four by ballot measure. Ag lobbyists have secured “ag-gag” laws in eight states, though a court has struck one down. Source: compiled based on personal research and knowledge.

But in the last decade policy opportunities have improved for farm animals, starting in the states. As the chart above indicates, advocates won ballot measures banning gestation crates in Florida (2002), gestation crates and veal crates in Arizona (2006), and battery cages, gestation crates, and veal crates in California (2008). They then used the threat of ballot measures in half a dozen other states to secure industry support for compromise legislation, typically banning only some confinement systems or providing a longer phase-out. Last fall, advocates won the broadest ballot measure yet — a Massachusetts law banning gestation crates, veal crates, battery cages, and the sale of products from them — by 78% - 22%. Meanwhile, no state has passed an ag-gag law since a federal judge struck down Idaho’s ag-gag law as unconstitutional in 2015, and last fall advocates soundly defeated a right to farm measure in Oklahoma.

There’s also been progress at the federal regulatory level. Until recently, the USDA did little to enforce humane slaughter requirements, as the Washington Post revealed in a front-page 2001 article entitled “They Die Piece by Piece.” But in 2008, a Humane Society of the United States undercover investigator revealed abuses at the Westland/Hallmark slaughterhouse in California, generating nationwide media and leading to Congressional hearings in which senators grilled the US Secretary of Agriculture. The chart below, based on data compiled by Dena Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute, shows how the USDA stepped up humane slaughter enforcement in response. Since then the USDA has also banned the slaughter of sick and injured “downer” cattle and calves, and just last week, finalized new organics rules that mandate animal welfare improvements for organic animals.

The USDA significantly increased its enforcement of humane slaughter regulations in the wake of the HSUS’ 2008 Hallmark / Westland slaughterhouse investigation. Source: data compiled from USDA reports by Dena Jones of the Animal Welfare Institute.

But the question still remains: why, in a country with more vegetarians than factory farmers, can’t we enact meaningful federal and state protections for farm animals? Why are we forced to use corporate campaigns to enact policy changes that, in some cases, the European Union enacted over a decade ago? I’m not sure, but here are my current three best guesses why.

First, political salience. Although, according to a 2007 poll, two thirds of Americans think that “the government should take an active role in promoting farm animal welfare” and 75% would vote for a state farm animal welfare law, most also think other issues are much more important (this is consistent with more recent polls). That explains why voters will support a ballot measure on farm animal welfare, yet politicians won’t support a law — they know that the issue is much more salient for the minority that opposes reform than for the majority that supports it.

Second, bipartisan influence. Although Republicans like Senator Bob Dole sponsored some of the key federal advances for farm animals, today Republican representatives largely shun the issue. For example, of the 72 US representatives who signed a 2014 letter urging the USDA to ban the slaughter of downer calves, just three were Republicans. This partisanship prevents animal advocates from securing a majority for even the most modest reforms in Congress — especially when rural Democrats oppose reform. By contrast, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has doggedly pursued a bipartisan strategy, secured the signatures of fully 88 of the 100 US senators in its recent letter urging President Obama to veto a UN resolution.

Third, corporate support. Animal advocates are unlikely to rival any time soon the roughly $47M that the livestock, poultry, dairy, and meat processing industries spent on federal lobbying and political contributions in the 2016 cycle. (And this excludes the millions more spent on state lobbying and contributions — and the parallel lobbying by state farm bureaus, commodity groups, and livestock drug companies.) But food companies do match this political influence, and might use it to support tougher laws to ensure their competitors can’t undercut their progress on farm animal welfare. As early as 2001, Burger King petitioned the USDA to enforce humane slaughter requirements to support its own reforms, and last fall Perdue Farms supported stricter organic animal welfare requirements after it announced its new animal welfare policy.

These are just my current best guesses though — let me know what you think is holding back the farm animal welfare movement politically. Next month I’ll tackle the broader public opinion question: how can we make farm animal welfare a more salient issue in US society?

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