November 05, 2009

Taking Lessons From Michigan and Ohio, States Should Prepare to Address Animal Care Issues

Proposition 2 in California in November 2008 ushered in new livestock housing requirements, led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Since that time, HSUS has turned its focus to two Midwestern states: Michigan and Ohio. And both states have recently addressed HSUS-supported livestock care and housing initiatives.

Concerns regarding outside influence over the regulation of the livestock industry—aside from the obvious increase in costs and liability for compliance efforts—include fears that the regulations were imposed without sufficient input from the regulated industry. Participants also question whether regulations were based on emotion and enacted without sufficient scientific basis or rationale for regulation.

Michigan Legislation Phases Out Veal Crates, Battery Cages and Gestation Crates

On October 12, 2009, Michigan enacted animal housing and care standards within the state. The law, widely seen as a compromise between agricultural interests and those of the HSUS and similar groups, phases out veal crates over the next three years, as well as battery cages for egg production and gestation crates for sows over the next ten years.

The legislation initially proposed and supported by the Michigan agricultural community, House Bills 5127 and 5128, resembled that proposed in Ohio (discussed below), but HSUS refused to support those bills and announced plans for a ballot initiative for the November 2010 ballot. At that point, Michigan agricultural groups worked with various groups, including HSUS and the state legislature to arrive at revised House Bill 5127—the bill recently enacted.

As part of the negotiations, HSUS agreed not to pursue a ballot initiative in Michigan provided legislation implementing the compromise agreement was passed into law.

Ohio Creates State Livestock Care Standards Board

Ohio livestock and egg producers faced similar issues, yet took a different tactic. In response to indications by HSUS that it was planning to pursue a ballot initiative similar to that supported by HSUS in California, the Ohio agricultural community worked with the legislature to propose a constitutional amendment to create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board.

In the election held November 3, the constitutional amendment passed with the support of almost two-thirds of voters. The amendment created a 13-member bipartisan board that is required to include representatives of Ohio farmers, farming organizations, county humane societies, academic institutions, general public and food safety experts. The board is charged with "prescrib[ing] standards for animal care and well-being that endeavor to maintain food safety, encourage locally grown and raised food, and protect Ohio farms and families." The legislation authorized the Ohio Department of Agriculture to enforce the standards developed by the board.

It is important to note that the Ohio constitutional amendment more broadly encompasses the industry than the laws enacted in Michigan and California, as it addresses all livestock. The Ohio Legislature showed strong support for the initiative when passed by both the House and Senate, thereby authorizing the ballot initiative for voters.

HSUS Will Seek to Define "Humane Treatment" of Livestock

In the time leading up to the November 3 election, the Ohio agricultural community and other groups largely came out in strong support for the constitutional initiative. HSUS, however, did not support the Ohio initiative and indicated it will seek to include its own constitutional initiative on the 2010 ballot that would further define "humane treatment" of livestock in Ohio.

With the passing of the constitutional amendment, any new proposed legislation will have to ensure that it does not encroach on the authority set forth by the constitutional amendment. However, should an HSUS-supported constitutional amendment pass, it would likely have precedent over the Livestock Care Standards Board.

Agricultural Communities Should Be Prepared

While the Ohio agricultural community was able to take the initiative and address issues head-on, all indications are that the battles related to regulation of animal housing and care within the state are far from over. Ohio will likely continue to be a focus of HSUS and other groups—and other states may be subject to similar pressure.

Agricultural communities in all states need to be prepared to address animal care concerns, perhaps even proactively, in the event HSUS or other groups begin to expand their focus.

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