U.S. Lags Far Behind Europe in Protections for Farmed Animals

Posted by Joyce Tischler, ALDF's Founder and General Counsel on August 15, 2011

Mahatma Gandhi once said that, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated.” In its treatment of farmed animals, how does the United States compare to Europe? Sadly, the answer is: not so great.

Factory farming, a system in which animals are confined in tiny cages and fed hormones and antibiotics, rather being allowed to graze outdoors in natural settings, is an invention of the mid-twentieth Century. Intensive confinement, such as the crowding of too many egg-laying hens into a small cage, constitutes one of the worst abuses visited upon animals: it denies living beings even their most basic needs and condemns them to a life of misery and suffering. And, it impacts over nine billion animals each year in the U.S. alone. Surprisingly, most U.S. consumers of animal products have little or no idea of the conditions that farmed animals are raised in or the devastating impacts these conditions have on the animals, the environment and human health.

Europeans began questioning factory farming thirty years ago, both on a scientific and ethical basis. As a result, Europe has made steady progress in improving the quality of life for farmed animals. In 1981, Switzerland banned the use of battery cages to house egg laying hens by the end of 1991. The Swedes banned battery cages in 1988; the Dutch followed suit in 1994 and a West German appellate court declared battery cages to be cruel as early as 1979. The British banned the veal crate in 1987 and intensive confinement of sows in 1991, to go into effect by the end of 1999.

The European Union (EU) is a political and economic organization of 27 countries with a standardized system of laws. The EU has adopted legislation that leads the world in protecting farmed animals. In 1998, the Council of the European Union adopted Council Directive 98/58/EC, which sets general rules for the protection of farmed animals. This Directive incorporates what are commonly referred to as the “Five Freedoms,” to wit, farmed animals must be given:

  • Freedom to express normal behavior – by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals’ own kind.
  • Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition – by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
  • Freedom from discomfort – by providing a suitable environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease – by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
  • Freedom from fear and distress – by ensuring conditions that avoid mental suffering.

European animal advocates were able to negotiate a critically important addition to the Treaty of Lisbon, which took effect in 2009. For the first time in European law, animals were referred to as “sentient beings” and the welfare of the animals is to be a consideration in European Union lawmaking. These are just a few of the advances that have been made in Europe.

The U.S. on the other hand, is just becoming aware of the egregious conditions in which farmed animals are forced to live and has not, as yet, witnessed an analogous broad based acknowledgment of the sentience of animals, nor of our responsibility to provide farmed animals with basic humane care and treatment.

A quick overview of federal and state laws “protecting” farmed animals will make this obvious. The federal Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act defines humane slaughter, but specifically excludes ritual slaughter from its protections and fails to mention poultry, who constitute 95% of the animals killed to be eaten. The federal Humane Transport Act, also known as the 28 Hour Law mandates that those who transport animals across state lines may not confine the animals for more than 28 hours. At some point during the 28 hours, the animals must be unloaded from the vehicle in a humane manner and taken to an area where they can rest and be provided with food and water. The federal Animal Welfare Act does not apply to animals raised for food.

No federal law covers the 99% of the time that farmed animals are alive, in other words, there is no federal regulation of the conditions or the treatment they receive while confined for their short, miserable lives in the factory farm. They fare little better under state law: thirty-seven state anti-cruelty laws specifically exempt farmed animals from coverage, as per Stephan Otto, ALDF’s legislative director, and in the remaining states, cruelty cases are rarely filed against farmers. Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the U.S. agricultural industry has enjoyed a complete stranglehold on setting the rules (or lack thereof) by which farmed animals are raised. Current “standards” for the raising of farmed animals in the U.S. meet the needs of industry, almost completely ignoring even the most basic needs of the animals. Farming practices that are common or “normal” in U.S. are viewed as unacceptable in many European countries. And, the distribution of undercover videos of abuses at factory farms and slaughterhouses has been an embarrassment to the agricultural industry.

The first chink in Big Ag’s seemingly impenetrable armor came in 2000, when the voters of Florida passed an initiative banning the use of gestation crates for sows in that state. Arizona voters followed suit and Prop 2 in California enabled voters to call for the end of battery cages, veal crates and gestation crates for sows. American consumers are starting to tell the agricultural industry that they want farmed animals to be raised humanely. Big Ag has played lip service to caring about welfare concerns, however, this year, lobbyists in four states attempted to pass “Ag Gag” laws, which would have made it illegal to photograph or videotape at agricultural facilities or to possess or distribute such evidence. In other words, the Ag-Gag approach is to shut up whistleblowers and eliminate their access to that embarrassing evidence of farmed animal abuse.

The recent news of the HSUS/United Egg Producer deal provides a peek into the changing tactics of some in the industry. As to whether that deal will ultimately be codified into law remains to be seen. If it does, the U.S. will still lag far behind Europe in its treatment of farmed animals, but a federal law offering some protections to egg laying hens will be a marker of forward progress.

American animal activists remain hopeful that the industry will respond in good faith to public pressure for increased protections and a move away from the present factory farming system, in which sentient beings are being treated as if they were pencils to be shoved in a drawer, until they reach market weight.


3 thoughts on “U.S. Lags Far Behind Europe in Protections for Farmed Animals

  1. JD Peterson says:

    Well written and shared. I think that a good way to ebb Monsantos’ stranglehold, would be limitations on access to factory farmed bees in order to pollinate mono-crop farming they control — the primary feed for factory farmed animals. A petition for this needs to be created.

    Are there clauses that can be explored in current animal laws — adding in a “biodiversity” protection? For instance, despite bees being the “property” of farmers, and their demise being due to systemic agriculture and “Round Up” pesticides, further is a detriment to soils, our water tables, and long term sustainability for all species. Hence, having an effect on humans. Until new precedence in law can be established to thwart exploitation of animals, where can it be proven that harm to them is directly harmful to us. It goes without saying that the current conditions of their living is horrific. But sadly, even existing laws are not enforced. Perhaps people will care more when the effects of their treatment are relative to our own survival. Sorrowful. Obviously Bayer in Germany still exports DDT for “Round Up” to the US while it has for a long time been banned unanimously throughout Europe.

  2. carol meyer says:

    yet another reason not to eat meat of any kind – not only is it harmful to the human body, but causes horrific conditions for these helpless animals!! what a stain on our country!

  3. Linda Gall says:

    JD, you are so right.. Could you write the needed petition since you understand the situation so well and which approach might work best? At least we need to give it our best shot, we’ve nothing to lose and I’m sure the poor animals would appreciate any effort on their behalf!

    And Carol, you’re also right about the stain on our country..I’m sure those in the U.K. Union look upon us as barbarians to defenseless animals with no compassion at all and interest only in the almighty profit! How awful and unnecessary :(