HSUS to take Prop 2-like action to Ohio

Veterinarians gear up for talks to thwart high-stakes conflict with activists

Published: April 06, 2009
By Jennifer Fiala

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is taking its campaign to eliminate tight housing quarters for farm animals on the road. Next stop: Ohio. 

In February, HSUS leaders Wayne Pacelle and Paul Shapiro sat down with agriculture groups and the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA) and announced plans to bring California’s costly and contentious Proposition 2 to the state that ranks second in egg production and ninth in swine, nationally. The group intends to put a citizen referendum to ban sow gestation stalls, veal crates and battery cages for layer hens on the November 2010 ballot. 

But first, the activist group is reaching out in hopes that a deal can be negotiated, and it appears that veterinary medicine will play a major role in how that might take place. 

For now, all sides say they’re willing to engage in a dialogue. Shapiro, senior director of HSUS’ Factory Farming Campaign, says that it’s in the agriculture industry’s best interest to compromise on imposing free-range housing requirements for livestock and hens. After all, when it comes to successfully taking its message to voters, HSUS is a financial and political powerhouse with an undefeated record. Since the group started its campaign to change agriculture’s controversial confinement standards, five states have imposed bans on housing systems deeply entrenched in U.S. agriculture. 

Why should this matter to the veterinary profession? Veterinarians spend their lives promoting the well-being of animals. Yet at the same time, activists appear to be guiding America’s attitudes on animal welfare, experts say, working to erode veterinary medicine’s authority on the topic and divide the profession. It’s a situation that played out last year as Proposition 2 drove a wedge through California’s community of DVMs. While food-animal practitioners tend to take a more conservative approach that backs longstanding agricultural housing practices, small-animal veterinarians often are more open to changing a system that some say abuses animals. 

But these characterizations are mere stereotypes; veterinarian’s attitudes on the issues can run the gamut, regardless of professional concentration, and such varying viewpoints have challenged major veterinary organizations. While the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) carefully weighs scientific evidence to establish opinions on what’s in the best interest of animals, HSUS and its cohorts are preening their message, using emotion to drown out the more moderate voice of organized veterinary medicine. 

For agriculture, the HSUS sound bite is hard to compete with: Animals need to be afforded enough room to turn around and extend their limbs. “The reality is that regardless of what type of state we’re talking about, the public agrees with this. The agribusiness trade groups are very likely to lose because the message is that basic,” HSUS’ Shapiro insists.

While many DVMs are on board with that perspective, others with agriculture and veterinary medicine think the statement oversimplifies issues that are more complicated. They argue that implementing alternative housing such as free-range or pen systems presents a huge and costly changeover for agribusinesses, one that could include the closure of farms, the loss millions of jobs and a stiff hike in food prices. Plus, such mandates merely trade one set of welfare concerns for another. Animals housed in open systems are more vulnerable to disease, parasite infestation and injury due to aggressive pen-mates. The system also makes it more difficult track an animal’s medical health and care, AVMA officials contend. 

What’s more, those who liken HSUS to “PETA-light extremism” fear the organization’s fingerprints on agriculture housing bans are a precursor to the group’s ultimate agenda — to end animal ownership and remove meat from the diets of Americans. 

Dr. Jon Kingborg, a small-animal practitioner and former California Veterinary Medical Association president, breaks down the issue’s complexities this way: “Veterinarians as individuals and veterinary associations have a key role to play in educating these stakeholders, whether it’s the consumer or the person raising the animal for sale. What we simply cannot do is just react to pictures of animals that appear to be too crowded. But at the same time, it’s absolutely a reasonable goal to want animals to move around and get up and stretch their limbs.”

All agricultural housing systems have their strengths and weaknesses, Klingborg adds. 

“That’s why I don’t think veterinarians should be favoring one system over another,” he says. “Our job should be to watch and educate. I don’t think we should be handing out seals of approval like the ADA (American Dental Association) gives to toothpaste.” 

On March 25, OVMA’s food animal and legislative committees spent six hours debating what a ban on production systems like sow gestation stalls, battery cages and veal crates might mean for animal welfare and agribusiness in the state. The only consensus reached was to explore the issues with HSUS, says Jack Advent, OVMA executive director. 

“What we do know is that if there is no dialogue, HSUS has stated that they will simply collect the signatures they need to go to the ballot where the electorate will decide on the issues,” he says. “We don’t want to close the door to something like legislation, which could be far more palatable than what might be on a ballot initiative.” 

Joe Cornely, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, is wary but still willing to sit down with HSUS: “We never stop talking; we never stop listening. But this will be tough. Agriculture isn’t rocket science. It’s harder. It doesn’t fit neatly and concisely on a bumper sticker. 

“This may be the single biggest challenge that the agricultural community in Ohio has ever faced,” Cornely adds. “It’s a huge challenge for our industry to be able to convey to a public without agriculture knowledge the intricacies of what it takes to put meat on their plate and milk in their glass. Who knows what will transpire if it comes to a point where we have to face off against HSUS with voters on this?” 

If history is any clue, the odds favor HSUS. Earlier this decade, humane society officials laid the groundwork to spread animal confinement bans nationwide by targeting states with little agriculture-based business and where opposition to change might not be heavy. That strategy also included banking on ballot referendums and appealing to the public rather than legislation, which was more likely to come up against lobbyist and lawmaker opposition. 

In 2002, voters in Florida — one of 24 states that allow for citizen referendum — became the nation’s first to enact a ban on swine gestation stalls after HSUS waged a two-year publicity campaign and gathered more than 600,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot. Five years later, Arizona voters outlawed gestation stalls by 2012. It reportedly cost Arizona's agriculture groups roughly $1.6 million in a failed bid to combat the HSUS message. Both states have very little in terms of swine operations. 

In 2007, Oregon became the nation’s third state to impose a swine gestation stall ban, this time via the Legislature. The law, to be phased in by 2012, cost “virtually nothing” to promote, Shapiro says, because industry put up almost no fight and the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association took a neutral stance. By all accounts, Senate Bill 694’s quiet enactment signaled industry’s acceptance that swine stalls would fall in small agriculture states, especially in light of Arizona’s costly battle. Last year, HSUS negotiated with Colorado’s veterinary profession and agriculture industry groups for a law to phase out swine stalls and veal crates. The deal, Colorado veterinary leaders say, was designed to stave off a ballot measure that also could have included a ban on battery cages for laying hens. 

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter signed the bill as Proposition 2 surfaced in California, the largest agriculture state in the nation. For many producers, the ballot measure was akin to agricultural Armageddon, phasing in bans on three types of animal confinement: veal crates, battery cages and sow gestation stalls. Each side spent an estimated $9 million in 11 media markets to promote their positions. Critics claimed that the changes would wreak havoc on a state with a reported 20 million laying hens producing 5 million eggs and that alternative, or free-range housing systems created new problems for agriculture, such as disease and parasite infestation. 

The battle made its way deep into veterinary medicine, where a faction of large-animal veterinarians railed against the California Veterinary Medical Association’s (CVMA) early support for Prop 2 and eventually spun off to form the Association of California Veterinarians. Leaders of the new group criticized the CVMA position by stating it alienated food-animal veterinarians and pandered to animal welfare ideals guided by a public that’s overly influenced by activists. At the time, CVMA official Dr. George Bishop countered: “All we want to do is promote science-based standards that are in line with our welfare polices. ... We want to lead the way on welfare." 

On Nov. 4, Proposition 2 passed with 63.5 percent of the vote. Increased space requirements to house veal calves, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs will become operative on Jan. 1, 2015. Producers who do not comply will face misdemeanor penalties. 

Opponents of the new law claim that the vote has destroyed the future of the state’s egg industry, and many hope that a bill currently playing out in the state Legislature will level the playing field for California’s producers by imposing free-range requirements on eggs imported from other states. 

Meanwhile, officials elsewhere are facing Prop 2’s proliferation.

Peter Weber, executive director of the Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association (IVMA) is relieved that an HSUS-backed bill mirroring Prop 2 failed last month to make it out of the Senate Agriculture Committee’s newly created Animal Welfare Subcommittee. “Illinois is huge in agriculture; even urban and suburban legislators understand the importance of agriculture to our economy,” he says. “It was abundantly clear that this bill plays to people’s emotions. There just isn’t the science to back the need for it.” 

Weber echoes the AVMA stance, which argues that every agricultural housing system has its pros and cons, and that scientific evidence shows that giving animals more room does not necessarily translate to a better life. 

Yet that position doesn’t fly with those in the veterinary profession who believe that such confinement practices are anti-welfare and unethical. In a July 2008, letter to the Modesto Bee, CVMA past-President Dr. Jeff Smith chided mainstream veterinary medicine’s conservative stance on such controversial issues, calling on his colleagues to stand up for change "instead of being deemed irrelevant or taken kicking and screaming to the eventual proper ethical outcome.” 

Still, what’s at stake goes beyond the health and well-being of animals and what’s deemed fashionable in terms of welfare, Cornely says. Agriculture is a $96-billion business in Ohio, with more than 1,000 food companies operating in the state, employing an estimated one million workers. 

“HSUS is well funded, well organized and extremely committed,” he says. “If we’re going to convince Ohio voters that we have a better idea for animal welfare, we've got to get ready for this."

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