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May 10, 2007

House Agriculture Subcommittee Ignores Animal Welfare Reforms

Life is full of little ironies. This Tuesday, I appeared at a Congressional hearing before the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry, where several people on a panel with me claimed that The HSUS is not active on animal sheltering issues. I had to shake my head when I thought about their misrepresentations, as I am now in Dallas, Texas, at The HSUS’s Animal Care Expo, standing in the midst of more than 1,500 shelter professionals and dedicated animal rescuers who flock to this event each year because of its value to their operations.

To give you some history, I requested a hearing on the subject of animal welfare, urging the new House Agriculture Committee chairman, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), to chart a more constructive course on animal issues than his predecessors. The committee’s past handling of animal issues can only be characterized as openly hostile. The committee became an extension of industry, and completely abrogated its responsibility to provide oversight for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s animal welfare programs. And many of the committee’s members, including the recent chairmen, were so orthodox in their views that they would not conduct hearings on any animal welfare bills.

The last hearing on a farm animal issue was in 1989, dealing with veal calves and their treatment. They did have a hearing last year on the issue of horse slaughter, but the only people there were advocates of horse slaughter! That’s a pep rally, not a hearing. On the issue of horse slaughter, the committee voted 37–3 against legislation to ban it. But when the matter came up on the House floor, the vote was 263–146 in favor of banning horse slaughter. Clearly, on that issue at least, their views did not represent the House, nor did they represent the views of the American public.

I pointed out to Chairman Peterson that the effect of the committee’s past disregard for animal welfare was to compel humane advocates to rewrite legislation to find other, fairer venues in Congress that would give just consideration to these issues.   

Peterson and I disagree on a number of issues. But I have always had considerable regard for him. He comes from rural Minnesota and is an enthusiastic big-game hunter, and I think he would agree with my characterization that he generally sees animals in utilitarian terms. But when he sees some particularly cruel or unfair practices—like cockfighting or Internet hunting, which offends his sensibilities and his own ethical standards—he is not afraid to stand up and support reform. To his credit, Chairman Peterson scheduled the hearing on animal welfare and agriculture. I commend him for that—it’s more than his predecessors did. 

Egg-laying chickens in battery cages
© The HSUS

Unfortunately, the hearing was not fair or balanced. The committee invited 13 witnesses, but only two represented animal protection interests. There was also a representative from the American Veterinary Medical Association, which usually takes the side of industry on animal issues. And then there were 10 witnesses from animal-use industries—a foie gras  producer, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the United Egg Producers, the National Association for Biomedical Research, and a cast of other critics of animal welfare.

The most outrageous witness was a guy named David Martosko from the misnamed Center for Consumer Freedom. Martosko and his boss, Rick Berman, are the flaks for this corporate front group. Funded by an initial $600,000 from tobacco interests, the Center for Consumer Freedom has no social welfare purpose, but just issues an unending stream of diatribes against animal welfare  groups and other socially conscious organizations. Martosko routinely attacks The HSUS, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Center for Science in the Public Interest and other public health organizations. He and Berman even attack the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when they talk about public health and safety issues. 

Tuesday’s hearing was supposed to be a forum about animal welfare and agriculture, but not one of the 10 industry witnesses advanced a single policy proposal to promote animal welfare. They basically just attacked The HSUS and other animal welfare groups and said that no government regulation of animal industries is needed. The industry representatives did not have any problems with veal crates, gestation crates, battery cages or other intensive confinement systems that are so small the animals inside cannot turn around. They did not express a word of support for including poultry under the provisions of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. They did not criticize the use of animals in live surgical demonstrations. They expressed no support for the idea of reining in Class B dealers, who have been known to procure people’s pets and sell them into research facilities. In short, they do not want Congress to adopt any new reforms for animals. 

What’s more, they cannot admit they are wrong. I told the committee that the animal-use industries wildly exaggerate the economic impact of animal welfare reforms. For instance, when we backed successful ballot measures in Arizona and Florida to ban gestation crates, the hog confinement industry said the reform would be devastating and drive farmers out of business. But after the Arizona initiative passed, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pig producer, said it would phase out the use of gestation crates—a clear admission that group housing for sows and other systems are economically viable. The head of Smithfield Foods said “it was the right thing to do.”

Downer cow at slaughter plant
© Compassion Over Killing

The livestock industry also said a ban on processing of downer livestock—those too sick or injured to stand and walk on their own—would result in devastation for the cattle industry and for food safety. We argued it was inhumane to drag downer livestock into slaughter plants, and they should be humanely euthanized. We also said, basing our arguments on incontrovertible data from Europe, that downer livestock are far more likely to have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, than are ambulatory livestock. We warned that it would be a downer cow with BSE who might be dragged into a slaughterhouse, be processed for food, and prompt an international food scare.

We were spot on. In December 2003, just six months after Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and former Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Tex.)—who  was defeated for re-election a few years later and who appeared at Tuesday’s hearing as the paid lobbyist for the horse slaughter industry—worked to narrowly defeat a ban on processing of downer livestock for human consumption and falsely assured the public that no BSE-positive animal could enter the food supply, that scenario played out exactly as we had predicted.  A downer cow with BSE was slaughtered and processed for food, and more than 40 nations closed their markets to U.S. exports of beef.

Unbelievably, during the Tuesday hearing, Rep. Goodlatte, the ranking Republican on the committee and its former chairman, said my claim about the downer cow-BSE connection was untrue and that no BSE-positive animal was processed for human consumption. It is Goodlatte who is dead wrong, I am afraid. On December 24, 2003, former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman—to take just one example to support my claim—confirmed to CNN's Soledad O'Brien that the BSE-positive downer cow did get into the food supply:

"We do know that the product has gone into other processing plants from the initial slaughter plant. And we are now tracing that product. We've issued a recall for about 10,000 pounds of meat."

These folks not only want to deny animals the protection they should have, but they deny reality.

Pigs in gestation crates
© Farm Animal Sanctuary

During the hearing, I was provided with my five minutes of testimony, and summarized a few points in my written testimony. But the Republican members of the Committee had a clear strategy: they made lengthy statements critical of animal protection and when their time was set to expire, they yielded back their time or asked questions of the industry witnesses, who dutifully parroted the industry line. They didn’t want to hear answers to their charges. I had to wonder—if they are so confident about their views, why are they so afraid of an honest exchange of ideas?

Not surprisingly, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) had the most outlandish and unprofessional statements during the hearing. He talked about how former NBA great Bill Walton had knee problems because he was a vegetarian, and King pronounced his favorite meal was steak and beer. And this is a man, lecturing the folks in the hearing room, who voted not only in favor of horse slaughter, but also opposed legislation to provide assistance to pets in disasters and opposed legislation to crack down on the barbaric and morally indefensible practices of dog fighting and cockfighting. When he was in the Iowa state legislature, he fought against strengthening the laws against animal cruelty and animal fighting. He is a man with no moral authority on animal welfare issues, that’s to be sure, and the hearing record was not strengthened with his preening and posturing.

Hearings are supposed to offer insight and illumination. But there was scant interest in such an outcome. The industry representatives and some of the members of the Agriculture Committee fear people who care about animals. They think of animals just as commodities, and don’t like the idea that The HSUS and other groups ask that these animals be recognized as sentient creatures who deserve respect, even if they are going to be raised for food. They profess an abstract concern for “the humane treatment of animals,” but they are unable to find circumstances where they actually support animal welfare reforms in agriculture.

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