Cracking down on farm animal cruelty

Posted May 18, 2009, at 6:39 p.m.

Gov. John Baldacci has signed some landmark bills in recent weeks. Among them is LD 1021, which prevents two cruel and inhumane factory farm confinement methods. Effective Jan. 1, 2011, the new law will prohibit gestation crates and veal crates — individual cages that virtually immobilize breeding pigs and veal calves for nearly their entire lives.

Maine’s agribusiness industry might not be as large as in some Midwestern states, but LD 1021’s passage is significant nonetheless. We’re now the nation’s sixth state to legislate against these abuses, making it clear we’re taking animal welfare more seriously and adding our voice to the increasingly prominent national debate over farm animal welfare.

Maine’s new law is the latest advancement in a nationwide movement against the harsh turn that agribusiness has taken in recent decades. Indeed, this past November, Californians overwhelmingly passed a similar measure, The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act. And other states have recently passed comparable reforms, including Colorado, Florida, Arizona and Oregon.

Why all the fuss about how we treat animals raised for food? Quite simply, because some standard agribusiness practices are out of step with mainstream American values about preventing animal abuse. Domestic factory farms cram hundreds of millions of animals into crates and cages so small, they can barely move.

But there’s a tidal wave of opposition to this abuse. Americans know that we’d never force our dogs and cats to endure permanent confinement in cages barely larger than their own bodies, and we shouldn’t force farm animals to endure such misery, either.

That’s exactly the sentiment behind LD 1021. Sponsored by Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, Senate chair of the Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, the bill passed the committee and both chambers unanimously. The Humane Society of the United States strongly backed the legislation.

There’s ample reason for the bill’s support. Across the country, factory farms confine millions of breeding pigs in gestation crates — 2-foot-wide individual metal cages barely bigger than their bodies — for nearly their entire four-month pregnancies. The crates are so small that the animals can’t even turn around. These highly intelligent and social animals suffer terribly and develop crippling joint disorders and lameness.

Animal scientist Temple Grandin explains, “Basically, you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat…. I think it’s something that needs to be phased out.”

Similarly, veal calves are forced into crates too narrow for them to turn around or even lie down comfortably. Typically chained by their necks, they’re virtually immobilized and prevented from engaging in natural behaviors.

These legislative advancements have begun to trigger nationwide changes in agribusiness. Smithfield Foods and Maple Leaf Foods, respectively the largest U.S. and Canadian pig producers, are converting from gestation crates to group pens where the animals have more freedom of movement. Strauss Veal, the nation’s largest veal producer, is no longer using veal crates, and the American Veal Association has urged the entire veal industry to do the same. And major national retailers such as Safeway and Burger King are increasingly phasing in crate-free and cage-free products because of consumer demand.

Mainers should be proud that our state is taking a leadership position on such important issues. Sen. Nutting and Gov. Baldacci deserve our thanks. Americans have made clear that they want to protect farm animals from the worst kinds of extreme confinement. It’s time for our friends in other states to follow suit and enact their own humane reforms.

Katie Lisnik is Maine state director for The Humane Society of the United States.

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