Farmed Animals and the Law

Did you know…

  • There are no federal laws governing the conditions in which farmed animals are raised?
  • The majority of farmed animal suffering is exempt from state criminal anti-cruelty laws?
  • Many individual state criminal anti-cruelty laws exempt “standard” or “commonly accepted” agricultural practices, which are not defined by the legislature?

Farmed animals raised for the meat, dairy, and egg industries are among the most abused in the U.S., in numbers so staggering as to be almost incomprehensible. Investigations and industry whistle-blowers have revealed abuses on farms and in slaughterhouses so horrific, most people cannot even bear to witness them. Despite their vast numbers, and severity of abuse they suffer, farmed animals receive only minimal protections by our legal system. As a result, the Animal Legal Defense Fund seeks to develop creative legal strategies that allow us to improve current law, looking toward a day when farmed animals receive better protections under our legal system.

Failing to Protect Farmed Animals

Farmed animals are unprotected by most state criminal anti-cruelty laws and even omitted from the federal Animal Welfare Act. The only federal oversight of their treatment comes during transportation and slaughter. The 28 Hour Law requires vehicles transporting animals for slaughter to stop every 28 hours to allow animals exercise, food, and water. This law is rarely enforced, and the USDA claims it does not apply to birds.

The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act is similarly limited. The Act requires that animals be stunned into unconsciousness and rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter. The Act has been wrongly interpreted to exclude birds, who make up more than 90 percent of the animals slaughtered for food, as well as rabbits, fish, and other animals routinely raised for human consumption. The law also permits ritual slaughter in which the animal is not rendered unconscious before slaughter. Unfortunately, compliance with and enforcement of this Act has been inconsistent, and animal protection organizations continue to expose pervasive and gruesome violations of it.Farmed Animals and the Law brochure

State Law Exemptions

The industry defines what practices are “standard” and therefore exempt. As a result:

  • Animals can have their testicles, tails, horns, beaks, or toes removed without anesthesia.
  • Animals are intensively confined in spaces so small they cannot turn around, extend their wings, or lie down comfortably, as in gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages.
  • Ducks are cruelly force-fed, to the point of organ failure, in the production of foie gras.
  • Hens are systematically starved in order to artificially re-start their egg-laying cycles.
  • Male chicks are ground up alive, and piglets are killed by slamming their heads on the ground.
  • Calves can be taken away from their mothers, mere moments after birth, causing distress for both. Calves raised for veal are so severely confined they cannot turn around or stretch their limbs.

Even when farmed animals are covered by state anti-cruelty laws, prosecution for abuse is rare, due to factors like limited investigative resources and the fact that most abuse occurs behind closed doors at windowless facilities.

Models for Improvement?

The European Union (EU) has made some significant strides in providing legal protections for farmed animals. Because many chickens are not effectively stunned before slaughter, some members of the EU ensure that chickens are killed by electrocution before proceeding down the slaughter line.

Norway has adopted a comprehensive Animal Welfare Act that applies to “livestock,” birds, rabbits, crustaceans, reptiles, salamanders, frogs, fish, and honey bees. It also requires that animals be killed out of the sight of other animals.

In the U.S., states like Florida, California, and Colorado have banned some forms of intensive confinement, such as battery cages and gestation crates.

What You Can Do

As long as the law fails to meaningfully protect farmed animals, you can help reduce their suffering by adopting a plant-based diet.

Let your state legislators know that legal protections for all animals are important, and that undercover whistle-blower investigations are vital to policing the industry. Tell your prosecutor you want to see violators punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Sign ALDF’s Animal Bill of Rights at to let your federal legislators know that all animals deserve basic legal protections that prevent the very worst abuses.

Join the Animal Legal Defense Fund in our work to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system. ALDF files cutting-edge lawsuits to fight abuses at factory farms, works with legislators to strengthen laws protecting farmed animals, assists prosecutors handling cruelty cases, and promotes the growth of animal law in schools, offices, and courtrooms across the nation.

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