Monday, February 12, 2007

HSUS Hopes to Help Put Forth Strong Bills to Curb Farm Animal Cruelty

Excellent synopsis of some of the issues that we all h0pe will be put forth this session.


Animal-rights groups could impact upcoming debates

By Philip Brasher
Gannett News Service

File photo/The Associated Press

Cattle are shown in a feedlot in Mead, Neb. Flush with cash, animal-welfare groups will be pushing to use this year's farm bill to stop practices they consider inhumane. One measure is a permanent ban on slaughtering cattle or hogs that are lame or ill.

WASHINGTON — Used to be that farmers only watched the debates over a farm bill to see how much money they would get out of it.

This year, some producers have reason to watch a little nervously. Flush with cash, animal-welfare groups will be pushing to use this year's farm bill to stop practices they consider inhumane.

Among the measures Congress is likely to take up:

# A requirement that the federal government, including the school lunch program, buy meat or dairy products from producers that meet certain animal-welfare standards, including adequate space in barns for hogs and poultry. Pork from producers who keep their sows in crates, the common practice in the industry, could no longer be sold to the government.

# A permanent ban on slaughtering "downer" cattle or hogs, animals that are lame or ill.

# A requirement that the U.S. Agriculture Department set standards for the humane slaughter of chickens and turkeys. Rules already in place set slaughter standards for cattle and hogs.

"We need to see the farm bill not just as a producer bill but as a producer bill and a consumer bill," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. "This is important to the public. The public cares about the humane treatment of animals."

A lot has happened since the last farm bill was written in 2002.

The Humane Society, now the most influential animal-rights group, has more than doubled its membership, merged with several smaller organizations and expanded its staff. Between 2002 and 2005, the organization's annual revenue jumped from $76 million to $141 million. The group also formed a new political arm that was used to target campaign spending against several key lawmakers in last fall's election.

Democrats now have control of both houses of Congress - in 2002 they held only the Senate - and several of the livestock industry's staunchest allies are out of office, including Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.

And last fall, farm groups suffered a signal defeat on animal-welfare issues when the House voted 263-146 to ban the slaughter of horses.

The ban ultimately didn't become law, but the vote demonstrated the potency of animal-welfare measures. Then Smithfield Foods, the nation's No. 1 hog producer, announced that it would phase out the use of gestation stalls, the 2-foot-by-7-foot crates that most sows spend their lives in.

Smithfield denied that it was bowing to pressure from activists - the company could hardly say otherwise - but Smithfield's biggest customers, such as McDonald's Corp., had been feeling the heat.

Shortly after Smithfield's announcement, Canada's top pork producer and packer, Maple Leaf Foods, said it too would phase out sow stalls.

"The animal-rights movement has changed since 2002," said Kelli Ludlum, who follows animal-welfare issues for the American Farm Bureau Federation. "You have your head in the sand if you think they are not more organized than they were five years ago."

The legislation that would set animal-welfare standards for federal suppliers may be the most important to watch. Animal-rights activists view the legislation as the first step to setting nationwide standards for livestock care.

"It's part of the process of seeing that we have humane standards for animals raised for food," Pacelle said.

There are precedents for starting with school lunches to change industry-wide practices of farmers and food processors. A ban on beef from downer cattle was introduced to the school lunch program well before the USDA imposed a broader, but temporary, ban on downers after the nation's first case of mad cow disease appeared in 2003.

Some farmers may rue the day that Congress passes the farm bill.

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