Animal welfare law a compromise Act offers many exemption categories

By Cynthia Price

Legal News

The "Agricultural Animal Welfare" bill, now Public Act 117, which went through both houses of the legislature last fall and was signed into law Oct. 12, 2009, was a classic example of good compromise that results in innovative legislation.

The original bill, which many say was in response to the threat of a ballot initiative by animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), the Michigan Humane Society, and Farm Sanctuary, was opposed by those and other organizations. The introduced bill, HB 5127, codified the treatment of farm animals already held by agricultural livestock groups such as the National Pork Board and United Egg Producers, which therefore meant very little change in the way animals were treated.

Based on a sense that the legislation would not "move" in that form, the two opposing factions came to the table and formulated a compromise, which was enacted into law.

For her role in that process, the HSUS named House Speaker Pro Tem Pam Byrnes from Washtenaw County as its 2009 Humane State Legislator of the Year.

According to Delcianna Winders, Director of Education Advocacy and attorney for Farm Sanctuary, her group and HSUS, along with Michigan Humane Society, had already surveyed Michigan citizens and found there would be strong support for limiting agricultural producers' ability to confine animals in tight spaces. Animal rights groups and individuals claim this is cruel to the animals, but many farmers claim it is the only way to make livestock agriculture profitable.

There is growing concern nationally about what are called Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. Many advocates and consumers find this relatively new manifestation of livestock raising appalling, and those who have followed the issue in Michigan will recognize that there are water quality and public health issues also associated with CAFOs.

HB 5127 eventually attracted 24 sponsors in the House. The legislation calls for phasing out such CAFO-like practices as gestation crates, veal crates, and hen battery crates (though that transition is allowed to take 10 years from the effective date). Act 117 mandates that "a farm owner or operator shall not tether or confine any covered animal [defined as "any gestating sow, calf raised for veal, or egg-laying hen that is kept on a farm"] on a farm for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from doing any of the following:

"(a) Lying down, standing up, or fully extending its limbs [defined as 'fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure' and in the case of egg-laying hens, 'fully spreading both wings without touching the side of an enclosure or other egg-laying hens, and having access to at least 1.0 square feet of usable floor space per hen.']

"(b) Turning around freely [defined as 'turning in a complete circle without any impediment, including a tether, and without touching the side of an enclosure or another animal.']"

The act offers many exemption categories, including scientific research and veterinary care, but it does touch briefly on conditions for slaughter, requiring the same confinement parameters. Either the Department of Agriculture or the Attorney General may enforce its provisions.

Around the time California resoundingly passed a similar measure through a ballot proposal in 2008, several shocking videos were released showing mistreatment of animals on farms, as well as in meat packing houses, which tended to mobilize consumer sentiment.

Though such inhumane practices are not the case with all livestock farms by any means, CAFOs tend to be the largest and most outspoken. However, the Michigan Farm Bureau chose to come to the table on HB 5127, which many have hailed as a far better way to handle controversial farming legislation than the more common adversarial approach.

According to Winders, large-farm advocates "saw that this is what the public wants -- they understood that we were going to pursue it through the ballot which is costly for both sides."

The American Humane Association, generally considered to be a more conservative animal welfare organization, whose attorney Allie Phillips comes from Michigan, also supported the legislation. In a letter to Gov. Granholm dated Oct. 14, the group reflected that it was "pleased to participate in the discussions leading to [its] development," and continued:

"We believe that people have the right to choose what they eat. Eliminating food choices is not our agenda. Our mission is to ensure that animals raised for food are treated humanely and to demonstrate that animal welfare practices can increase productivity and efficiencies for farmers."

The letter also called the bill "a model for other states." Indeed, the legislation is nearly unprecedented nationwide. Michigan is only the second state to ban battery cages, and the fifth to ban veal crates, seventh to prohibit gestation crates. There is talk of a similar ballot initiative in Ohio.

Act 117 amends PA 466 of 1988 by adding a Section 46.

Published: Tue, Jan 11, 2011

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