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June 19, 2012

Senate Farm Bill Throws Animal Welfare Under the Bus

It’s emotionally difficult to deal with the reality of animals being harmed, especially for those acutely alert to their plight.  In my capacity as president of The HSUS, I get a front-row seat for it all. It’s my job to learn about cruelty to animals in its many forms, and to work with my colleagues to try to figure out a way to turn around these problems.    

I cope with it by knowing that we are doing something about it. Indeed, that’s the reason groups like The HSUS exist. We are here to organize people of conscience and to encourage them to exert their collective influence.

Hens in battery cages at Kreider Farms during an HSUS egg investigation
The HSUS
Animals deserve better than extreme confinement.

There’s proof of progress all around us. Look at the raft of bills made into laws at the state level, corporate progress, and public awareness in recent years. We are a strong, vibrant, and ascendant movement.

One particular cause for hope is that opposition to cruelty is not a strange or alien value. It’s at the core of our humanity. While we humans have the capacity to be selfish, we also have the capacity for empathy and other-centeredness. When it comes to institutionalized cruelty, the hope is that empathy can triumph over greed and selfishness. With the creativity of the human mind, we can figure out ways to conduct our business in society and not leave behind a trail of animal suffering in the process.

That’s why it’s so distressing when a small number of people―in this case, a handful of members of the U.S. Senate―band together to retard progress.

Since last July, I’ve written many times on this blog about the landmark agreement forged between The HSUS and the United Egg Producers to phase out the barren battery cage and to create a labeling program that would give consumers more information about how laying hens are treated. In the scheme of things for our nation, it may seem like a small matter. But there are 285 million laying hens in America, and the vast majority of them live in privation, in small wire cages that don’t even allow them to stretch their wings. Eggs are a staple in the American diet, and it’s nearly a $15 billion industry when you add up sales and all of the related activity. For those reasons, it’s a subject that should warrant the serious attention of lawmakers, especially when the farm bill rolls around for consideration.

The HSUS and UEP agreed that it would be unworkable for this pact to be voluntary, because there would be outliers within the egg industry who would not make investments in improved housing systems and would then try to undercut producers doing the right thing, and because it wouldn't prevent the patchwork of conflicting state laws on the subject. The Congress would have to codify the agreement to set a uniform, national standard.

I knew enactment of this measure in the Congress would be no slam dunk. But I did believe that a majority of lawmakers would embrace this good faith process of collaboration and problem-solving between traditional adversaries. I thought they’d be eager to ratify an agreement that showed such demonstrable progress on animal welfare, yet also provided certainty and security for American egg producers.

Last night, much to my chagrin, the Senate approved an agreement to allow a finite number of amendments to the farm bill (73 in total), and the major measures related to animal welfare were excluded from consideration. Among the provisions omitted were Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s amendment to codify the egg industry accord, as well as an amendment from Sen. Richard Blumenthal to build on the existing federal law against animal fighting by making it a crime to attend or to bring a minor to a dogfight or cockfight.

The long and the short is, key lawmakers bowed to pressure from the meat industry, specifically the pork and cattle industries. Now mind you, these industries have zero stake in the egg industry, and no economic interest in animal fighting, either. They simply want to obstruct any and all progress for animal welfare, believing that any Congressional action on animal welfare will eventually reflect poorly on their practices and put more pressure on them to change.

With respect to the 200 major egg producers in the United States, we could say that they were outmuscled by the cattle and pork lobbies. In American politics, we now have a new truism: meat breaks eggs, just like rocks breaks scissors.

So there’ll be no debate in the Senate on the egg industry and its future during consideration of the farm bill. And that’s simply because some senators just won’t act in the national interest. Their fealty to the pork and cattle industries led them to throw the egg industry and animal welfare interests under the bus.

Now, we’ll see how the same issues play out in the House, and we will be working hard to get consideration of legislation on animal fighting and egg-laying hens on the House floor. It’s our hope that they let the debate proceed. If we win there, we still have a chance on a long-awaited reform that can help hundreds of millions of animals.

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