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Prop 2 rattles Calif., prompts welfare council

Advisory group receives mixed reaction


July 15, 2009
By: Timothy Kirn
For The VIN News Service


In what may be the first of its kind, experts in agriculture and veterinary medicine at the University of California (UC) have set up a statewide committee to advise on animal-welfare issues.

The impetus for the formation of the UC Animal Welfare Council was California’s adoption of the ballot initiative Proposition 2, which phases in a statewide ban on agricultural housing systems that confine farm animals in spaces where they could not turn around freely, lie down or fully stretch their limbs. Most notably, battery cages for layer hens are now outlawed by 2015, in a state that ranks sixth in U.S. egg production.

Prop 2 passed with more than 60 percent of the vote. It was sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which openly stated that California was a trial balloon for an effort that the activist group hopes to spread nationwide.

The message sent by Prop 2, according to some observers, is that public attitudes concerning animal welfare might be more in line with the positions of the HSUS than those of food producers or organized veterinary medicine, which traditionally has stated that scientific evidence fails to show that free-range housing systems better protect the health and welfare of food-producing animals. 

While those who opposed Prop 2 threatened that it could raise egg prices in California significantly, the public backed it anyway. 

“With Proposition 2, it was felt that we probably should get more involved in animal welfare,” says Dr. Bennie Osburn, dean of UC Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine and vice-chair of the UC Animal Welfare Advisory Council. “Proposition 2 took everything to a new level.”

There are a few issues on which industry needs advice to improve practices and to avoid possible public backlash, Osburn contends. One of those is how to handle downer cows. Last year, an HSUS video taken inside a slaughterhouse in California showed downer cows being dragged with chains and pushed across a concrete floor via forklift.

In June, the council met with a number of producer groups to generate ideas for other issues it should tackle.

Animal industry issues are first on the agenda, though eventually the group intends to advise on issues related to equine, companion animals and possibly wildlife.

A university spokesperson said there is a hope that taking this kind of a lead in animal welfare might bring together oft-opposed stakeholders: the activist community vs. producers, and to a large degree, mainstream veterinary medicine. 

But at least one activist has doubts about the council's agenda.

“My feeling is that what they will be setting up is a scam,” says Elliot Katz, DVM, the founder of In Defense of Animals, an activist group that started out protesting research using animals. The academic veterinary and agriculture establishment “is there to help the farmer. That is their mandate. They are not there to help animals.”

HSUS is currently suing the UC over research it published during the Prop 2 campaign, alleging unlawful campaign activities. The research warned of dire consequences if the proposition passed, though it did say that the price of eggs might be unaffected. The HSUS suit contends that the university was influenced by industry and anti-Prop 2 advisors when it put out a press release about the research that HSUS says unfairly played up certain aspects of the findings, which is violation of state lobbying law.

The California Cattleman’s Association welcomes the assistance of the UC Animal Welfare Council, however.

Tom Talbot, DVM, the association’s president, says he believes the council will be able to provide cattlemen and others with an objective perspective, and advise them when they need to change or educate the public.

“We just want to make sure people understand what we do,” says Talbot, who ranches and practices veterinary medicine in Bishop, Calif.



VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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