by Hannah Packman
A new animal welfare bill in Massachusetts would improve living conditions for laying hens, veal calves, and pregnant sows, but is it enough?
McDonald’s is the most recent in a series of large corporations to jump on the humane bandwagon when they pledged to eliminate caged eggs from their supply chain within the next ten years. Unlike Chipotle or Whole Foods, McDonald’s is not particularly renowned for its ethical practices, so their participation is indicative of a larger sea change in the American agricultural ethos.
For quite some time, post-agrarian American consumers were willingly ignorant about the origins of their food. We outsourced food production to farms and factories miles away, blissfully unaware of the consequences of doing so. But over the past few decades, U.S. citizens have expressed a growing interest in the larger impacts of the industrialized food system. Initially, much of the attention was selfishly motivated, with a bulk of the discourse centering on food borne illness and nutritional health. However, in more recent decades, the scope of focus has broadened to include more altruistic issues of environmental sustainability, human rights, and animal welfare.
While lawmakers have addressed many of these concerns via industry regulation and consumer protection, they have been loath to implement animal rights bills, largely due to the overwhelming influence of the livestock industry. But the precedent for inaction is gradually eroding. In 2008, California approved Proposition 2, or the Standards for Confining Farm Animals. The bill was fully enacted earlier this year, prohibiting the use of inhumane confinement methods, such as calf and pig crates and battery cages.
Other states are now following suit; Citizens for Farm Animal Protection (CFAP), a coalition comprised of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), among other organizations, introduced a new ballot initiative to improve the living conditions of livestock in Massachusetts by allowing them enough room to fully extend their limbs. The mechanism of the ballot is twofold; it would ban the extreme confinement of veal calves, sows, and egg-laying hens in Massachusetts farms, as well as forbid the import and sale of eggs, veal and pork raised in such conditions.
Indeed, the bill would have a negligible effect on Massachusetts farmers. Currently, no farmers within state boundaries employ gestation or veal crates, and only a single farm raises caged eggs. While the ballot’s ripple effect would be far more significant, as it requires compliance from every producer importing goods into the state, improved livestock practices will be necessary in the future in any case, due to increasing demand. According to Stephanie Harris, Massachusetts state director of HSUS, “ten states have already passed laws to phase out types of extreme confinement addressed in this proposal, and nearly 100 major food retailers—like McDonald’s and Wal-Mart—have voluntary policies to phase them out too.”
Although the Massachusetts initiative is still in early stages, the food service industry has already started to adjust sourcing procedures. As Harris notes, “the top four food service providers, Compass Group, Aramark, Sodexo, and Delaware North, have all made public animal welfare commitments that are aligned with the rules set forth in the proposed ballot measure. These companies service some of the most prominent institutions in Massachusetts, including TD Garden Center, Fenway Park, MIT, UMass Boston, UMass Lowell, and Northeastern.”
The demand for ethically produced meat, eggs, and dairy has been so emphatic as to garner notice from the agricultural sector. United Egg Producers (UEP), which contributed $10 million to combat Proposition 2, has already announced that it will not resist the Massachusetts initiative. The cooperative recognizes the growing momentum of the animal advocacy movement, and acknowledges that battery cages will inevitably become obsolete in the near future.
The pork and veal industries have not been so accommodating; the National Pork Producers Council has publicly maligned the bill, suggesting it will drastically increase the costs of livestock production and thus the price of food. However, these concerns are exaggerated. A 2006 study determined that a cage-free egg costs approximately 2.4 cents more than a caged egg. Similar studies indicate that retiring gestation crates could potentially decrease production costs. As such, the expected financial impact on American consumers would likely be minimal.
Regardless of the monetary cost, the ballot initiative offers a number of benefits to both producers and consumers. For one, there’s the advantage of enhanced food safety. Researchers suggest that compared to their caged counterparts, cage-free eggs are significantly less likely to carry salmonella. These results are unsurprising; distressed animals are more susceptible to disease, a fact that is only exacerbated by close quarters and dusty air. And lower incidence of food-borne illness is not just advantageous for livestock and the general public – preventing pre-slaughter deaths bolsters yield and, in turn, total revenue for the farmer.
It is heartening that the American public is increasingly invested in the welfare of farm animals. Though the Massachusetts ballot initiative would be an important first step to ensure livestock adequate housing conditions, it is the bare minimum we can do. Billions of animals are cycled through the American livestock sector every year, the vast majority enduring unthinkably inhumane treatment for the duration of their lives. It is long overdue that our policy makers prioritize the wellbeing of these sentient creatures over the whims of industry. For millennia, we have depended on farm animals for food, fiber, and fertilizer; in return, we owe them, at the very least, a life worth living.
To get the initiative on the 2016 ballot, CFAP must collect 95,000 signatures from registered Massachusetts voters. If you’re interested in helping collect signatures, visit http://citizensforfarmanimals.ngpvanhost.com/volunteer
Hannah Packman is a second-year student in the Agriculture, Food and Environment program. When she isn’t busy filling her head with food-related facts, she enjoys filling her stomach with food-related objects.