Practical Issues > Factory Farming > Farming

Farm animals deserve better lives
By Michael Markarian
June 23, 2006

Laws, as Otto von Bismarck famously observed, are like sausages; it is better not to see either being made. But thanks to an Oregon congressman - 4th District Democrat Peter DeFazio - one federal reform could make sausage production a more bearable thought, and the treatment of millions of farm animals more humane.

DeFazio, along with Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., has introduced the Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act, House Resolution 5557. The resolution is a much needed public policy based on sensible and compassionate standards of animal hus- bandry.

Each year, more than 10 billion farm animals are used for food in the United States. While Congress decided nearly a half century ago, with the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958, that farm animals must have a decent death, there is not a single federal law ensuring that these chickens, pigs, cows and other farm animals have a decent life before they meet their end.

On the old family farms, animals could live like animals - scratching and rooting in the earth, feeling the sunlight on their backs, and grazing in lush pastures. But on today's industrial factory farms they are treated as nothing more than meat-, milk-, and egg-producing machines.

Today's livestock is crammed into tighter spaces to increase efficiency, their every movement controlled, from feeding to reproduction. They're pumped full of antibiotics so their weak immune systems can tolerate the unnatural and inhumane conditions.

Young calves, breeding pigs and egg-laying hens are kept in crates or in cages so small that they can't even lie down, turn around, stretch their limbs or spread their wings.

For the entire duration of her pregnancy, a sow is granted a space between metal bars that is all of 22 inches wide. For her entire life, a hen occupies a space with horizontal and vertical dimensions less than a single, letter-sized sheet of paper.

Ducks and geese are force-fed if we want their fatty livers. Hens are starved if we want to push their battered bodies through one more egg-laying cycle.

Injured cattle, too sick or lame to walk to their own death, are dragged to slaughter with bulldozers, chains or forklifts. Never mind that these "downer" cows may have gone lame due to a neurological condition, the very symptom of mad cow disease.

American consumers, increasingly concerned about animal welfare and public health, are demanding better. While most Americans accept the practice of using animals for food, they do not believe that animals should be tormented while they're alive.

What's more, major national food retailers are listening.

McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's have all taken steps demanding that their suppliers meet improved animal welfare standards. Wild Oats Natural Marketplace has stopped selling eggs from caged birds, Trader Joe's has made its own brand of eggs cage-free, and Whole Foods Market is developing an entire set of animal welfare standards for its eggs, milk and meats.

More than 90 schools have enacted policies to greatly reduce or eliminate their sales of eggs from caged hens in their dining halls - including Lewis & Clark College, University of Portland, Willamette University and others in Oregon.

The Shays-DeFazio bill would help the market for humanely raised products grow even faster. The Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act would state that any producer who wishes to provide food products to the federal government - say, for the military, for federal prisons, for the school lunch program - must meet a basic set of modest animal welfare standards.

Essentially, the animals must have proper space and shelter; they cannot be confined in tiny crates or cages for the purpose of veal, pork or eggs. They must have adequate food and water; they cannot be starved for egg production or force-fed to create pâté de foie gras. And sick or injured animals cannot be left to languish without treatment or humane euthanasia.

Rather than banning any practice or imposing a universal standard on all producers nationwide, HR 5557 would apply only to producers who voluntarily choose to do business with the federal government - which already imposes numerous standards on contractors, including wage and labor requirements, and fuel economy standards for government vehicles.

The proposal would allow the U.S. government to lead by example, and would help create additional markets and incentives for farmers who are raising animals the right way rather than using the most inhumane industrial farming practices.

Just as Congress saw fit a half century ago to give farm animals a merciful death, it's high time to give them a merciful life. Federal lawmakers should pass the Farm Animal Stewardship Protection Act - because farm animals give us so much, and they deserve a little bit of common decency in return.

Michael Markarian is executive vice president of the Humane Society of the United States (www.hsus.org), which is based in Washington, D.C.