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Feature   | Summer 2009

Listening to the animals

Debate escalates over animal welfare

Most U.S. citizens will forever remember the historic 2008 presidential election. Political pundits focused on the battle for our nation's top offices, and some states experienced too-close-to-call congressional races. In California, however, a different type of battle was brewing, but it was one that was just as hotly contested.


In the ballot-initiative state of California, The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act—also known as "Proposition 2"—passed with 63 percent of the vote. The act, which had failed in several prior attempts, sets new animal welfare standards for veal calves, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs. The law requires that all of these species have the ability to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely in production facilities.

California joins Florida, Arizona and Oregon, states that already have similar laws on the books. In Colorado, industry groups avoided a ballot initiative by reaching a compromise with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which led the campaign in California. Talks are also under way between the HSUS and farm groups in Ohio.

Expedited by a changed economy
The issue of animal well-being and animal welfare is not a new one, but it's been receiving substantially more attention from the public in recent years. With growing grassroots support, animal-rights organizations have been able to accomplish changes in the way animals are raised, due in part to the transition from small independently owned stores to big box stores and chains.

"There used to be many farmers raising animals and putting them on the market," says Ed Pajor, a researcher at Purdue University through summer 2009. "Now, with the integration of the food system and big box stores, there aren't many family ma and pa shops left." This change is one of the reasons the United States has gone from a "push" economy, where farmers decide how animals are raised, to a "pull" economy, where the retailer tells the farmer how their animals will be raised and sent to the retailer, Pajor explains.

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As the debate over food animal well-being issues plays out in public forums and political arenas, researchers like Ed Pajor are developing science-based recommendations for production practices.

This transition has allowed animal rights groups to put pressure on retailers, such as McDonald's, Burger King and Wal-Mart, and influence the production methods of hundreds of farmers who directly or indirectly contract or sell their products to retailers.

In 2007, Smithfield Foods announced it would require its producers to phase out the practice of keeping pregnant pigs in gestation crates. McDonald's now requires cages for laying hens to be a minimum of 72 square inches of space, with a minimum of 4 inches of feeder space. And Burger King purchases 2 percent of its eggs from producers who do not confine laying hens in battery cages and doubled the percentage of cage-free eggs it uses to 5 percent.

The debate over how food animals are raised and treated reflects viewpoints at both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. The success of Proposition 2 was not accomplished by activists alone. It was propelled by a growing number of concerned citizens who want to see animals treated more humanely. But do these actions, often driven by human emotion, always result in better care?


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