Animal Welfare Debate Takes Center Stage
From: Lancaster Farming. Follow this link to the article
Submitted by Editor on Fri, 08/21/2009 - 11:25am.
Charlene M. Shupp
Special Sections Editor
HERSHEY, Pa. — The take-home message from last week’s Animal Welfare Forum was simple. Chad Gregory of the United Egg Producers and Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) agreed to disagree.
During the two-hour discussion, farmers, veterinarians and industry professionals heard Gregory and Shapiro discuss the impact of California’s Proposition 2 ballot initiative from 2009. This was the first time both have addressed a group jointly on animal agriculture production. The event was sponsored by PennAg Industries Association and the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association.
Last year, both sides spent millions of dollars to argue their viewpoints on the ballot initiative that would essentially eliminate gestation crates for swine, battery cages for chickens and crates for veal calves.
The question voters had to answer was this: “Should farm animals have the ability to stand up, sit down, turn around, and extend their limbs without touching anything?” Both sides built coalitions before the election to make their case. For Californians, the answer was a resounding “yes,” winning 63 to 37 percent.
Shapiro noted that the ballot garnered more “yes” votes than any other citizen initiative in California history and that it won majorities of all major demographics.
Gregory said the electorate did not understand what they were voting for, and Shapiro countered that the overwhelming support for the measure showed that, for the most part, it was an obvious choice.
The battle over animal welfare has gained momentum in several states in addition to California. In states where the issue was taken through the state legislature, Gregory said his organization has won because they have been able to use science to explain their side of the issue to legislators.
On the other hand, in states where the issue can be decided by a ballot initiative, HSUS has been successful.
Gregory asked this rhetorical question: If all the HSUS wanted to do was ban battery cages, why did they not simplify the language to reflect that? He believes it is so HSUS can expand the meaning of the law as it is implemented.
“We cannot feed these (additional) people without concentrated, commercial-sized farms,” said Gregory. “It’s impossible.” He noted that 95 percent of all egg production is in caged egg production facilities.
In trying to separate the differences between the two groups, Gregory said organizations like his represent “farmers who get dirt under their fingernails.”
Shapiro said that the strength of the HSUS comes from its membership, and that in a recent survey HSUS placed in the top 10 in brand recognition — the only group that did not represent a human welfare topic with that distinction. He also said 1 in 28 Americans support HSUS.
Consumers, Gregory believes, should be allowed to decide how their eggs are produced — caged, cage-free, or organic — at the grocery checkout line.
The egg industry saw welfare-driven production changes happening in Europe and decided to take a proactive approach to the issue. United Egg Producers (UEP) developed an animal welfare committee to craft a scientifically-based set of guidelines for the industry.
“We did not want the guidelines to be driven by government mandates and activist organizations,” said Gregory. “We wanted guidelines to prevent disruption in the industry.”
The program has requirements for space per bird, and also addresses molting, beak trimming and lighting. Participating farms must have 100 percent of their farm audited and file compliance reports.
“This program has incredible teeth, it has been very credible,” Gregory said, noting that 80 percent of farms are participating. Additionally, cage-free programs certified by UEP are also accredited by the American Humane Association.
Gregory challenged Shapiro, saying if HSUS and PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) were “really interested in improving the welfare of chickens, they would go after the remaining 20 percent to get them into the program.”
Proposition 2, according to Shapiro, was grassroots driven with countless volunteers reaching out to their neighbors to share their concerns with the welfare of farm animals. Most states do not have laws on the books regarding animal welfare for livestock.
Both Gregory and Shapiro used science and research for their sides of the argument, in some cases using the same study to make their points.
According to Gregory, if cages were banned, the ramifications would include an increase of 15 million hens to produce the same number of eggs, a doubling of chicken mortality, and greater feed needs — to the tune of an additional one million acres of cropland for grain.
Both pointed to the economic study that says it costs one cent more per egg to move from caged to cage free production. Shapiro said that the costs to producers and consumers would not be much. Gregory said the study does not include the upfront investments that will be needed by farmers. He also noted the differences in store costs of more than a $1 dollar per dozen for eggs from cage-free hens and nearly $3 for organic compared to eggs from caged hens.
Both argued food safety points. Gregory used studies demonstrating that eggs produced in a cages system were safer. Shapiro pointed to studies showing the food safety benefits of cage-free.
Shapiro said that the egg industry only has to look to the broiler industry.
Broilers are raised on floors. He said the object of HSUS’s work is not to take farmers out of business.
“We’re not talking about making ideal living conditions for animals,” he said. “We are talking about raising the bar for animal welfare.”
Gregory concluded that Americans need to be careful in their choices because of the long-term effects. Looking to Europe, he said that consumers need to move forward with caution. Since many changes have come to regulations in the European Union, animal food production has been unable to keep pace with demand and those countries are on the verge of an egg shortage. To make up the difference, they will have to import eggs from countries that do not follow animal welfare standards.
Charlene Shupp Espenshade can be reached at email@example.com.