Thursday, July 8, 2010

Animal Care Settlement--Agreement or Surrender?

Last week a surprise announcement issued from Ohio Governor Ted Strickland's office. He had mediated an agreement on animal care standards between the Humane Society of the United States (hereafter Humane Society) and the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation (hereafter Farm Bureau).

A bit of background is needed. Over the past several years, the Humane Society has been sponsoring petition drives to put livestock care initiatives on the ballots in several states. The purpose for these initiatives is to outlaw certain practices common in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO's), colloquially known as factory farms. These practices include extreme confinement of animals for their entire lives, among other rather dreadful practices. They've won these initiatives in several states, most notably California, and Ohio was another state on their list of states to begin a petition drive.

Last year, the Farm Bureau succeeded in persuading the Ohio General Assembly to place its own initiative on the ballot. The legislature's proposal was to create a livestock care board made of several individuals involved in agriculture, including some farmers. The board would be chaired by the Commissioner of Agriculture and would set standards for animal care on all commercial farm operations. The voters of Ohio approved the initiative in last November's election, but many felt that the voters had had the wool pulled over their eyes--the Farm Bureau had simply asked the legislature to intervene to thwart the Humane Society's efforts. The campaign advertising emphasized animal care, but the Farm Bureau and its agribusiness allies outspent the opposition by thirty to one, so hardly any Ohioans heard arguments against the proposal. Many believed that the board, created and staffed by Big Ag personnel, would have no teeth and would simply rubber-stamp current CAFO animal care practices.

The Humane Society vowed to fight back, and early this year they announced sponsorship of a petition drive to place specific animal care requirements on the November ballot. Their petition drive was quite successful, and last week the Humane Society was prepared to turn in half a million signatures to Ohio's election officials--more than enough to place the issue on the ballot.

Thus this brokered agreement between the two sides came as a total shock to most of us, who were expecting a real knock-down-drag-out fight during the upcoming campaign. That the two mortal enemies--the Humane Society and the Farm Bureau--had suddenly come to an agreement was so unexpected that Columbus Dispatch writer Thomas Studdes suggested in an opinion column last week that maybe Gov. Strickland should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Looking at the details of the agreement, however, it appears quite clear that the Humane Society achieved just about all of their goals and then some. The agreement includes:
-permits will not be issued for new farms to use battery cages for housing hens;
-gestation cages for sows will be phased out;
-elimination of confinement for veal calves;
-humane euthanasia procedures for sick or injured farm animals;
-keeping "downer" ill or injured animals out of the food supply; and
-several animal issues not directly related to farming: making cock fighting a felony; prohibiting the keeping of exotic animals like lions and cobras as pets, and cracking down on so-called puppy mill dog breeding operations. These changes would have to be enacted by the General Assembly.

So what was in this agreement for the Farm Bureau? The chief thing they won is that the Humane Society agreed to withdraw their petition drive; therefore, the issue will not appear on the ballot in November. The voters will thus be spared the promised fight over the initiative.

Both sides, predictably, claimed victory. One can go to their Web sites and read their press releases, where both sides put a positive spin on the agreement. (Here's the Ohio Farm Bureau president Jack Fisher's comments.) But it's hard to see that the Farm Bureau came out on top. And indeed, some of the comments from members on the Farm Bureau site indicate that many feel they gave in, caved in, gave up, surrendered, or expressed similar sentiments. Some asserted that the Humane Society is associated with "terrorist" organizations.

But Thomas Studdes' column speculated that the reason the Farm Bureau agreed to this settlement is that they knew their cause was already lost. In May, an animal rights group known as Mercy for Animals released an undercover video they had made at a dairy farm northwest of Columbus. The video (linked here--WARNING: some content may be disturbing to watch) gave graphic displays of animal abuse. Studdes thinks that perhaps the Farm Bureau realized they couldn't fight the video, so they called the Governor and agreed to meet with the Humane Society.

Perhaps. Whatever the reason, the agreement seems like good news for those of us who have become concerned about the quality and safety of food from CAFO's (not to mention the horrific animal treatment typical of these operations). We'll have to wait and see.

I'm just glad that the two sides agreed to get together and talk, whatever the motivation was. I've been saying all along that this is what they should do. Maybe during their discussion, they began to realize that the people on the other side of the table were normal human beings and not the monsters that they had come to think they were. Imagine that.

NOTE: The farmer who owned the dairy farm shown in the video was exonerated yesterday when a court declined to press charges against him. His own actions, though they might seem abusive in the video, were not considered to be so after the video was viewed by experts. But one of the employees, shown in the video abusing a calf, was fired.

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