Compromise unites humane societies, livestock breeders to pass 'animal welfare' law HB 5127

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.

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 specifies that caged animals must be able to lie down, stand up and fully extend its limbs or spread its wings, for instance.

Further, they must be able to turn around freely without touching the sides of the enclosure or another animal and without any impediment such as a tether.

Either the Department of Agriculture or the Attorney General may enforce its provisions.

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 October 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.

Published: Thu, Apr 8, 2010