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Humane Society, farmers prepare for war

By jim Published: July 19, 2009

Battle lines are forming over proposal to change Ohio rules on methods of confining livestock

By Bob Downing

Beacon Journal staff writer

Ohio farmers are fighting back against a proposal by the Humane Society of the United States to change how chickens, pigs and calves are confined.

The two sides already are scrapping over what is expected to become a heated, emotional and costly statewide ballot issue in November and perhaps again in 2010.

What's happening is ''tremendously scary to Ohio farmers . . . and what's happening will impact everyone in Ohio,'' Stark County farmer Frank Burkett III said.

The outcome could cost farm jobs in Ohio and affect prices, opponents contend.

In 2008, the Humane Society played a key role in a California vote that changed the way farmers there must care for and shelter farm animals. Ohio became its next target, largely because of the state's 30 million egg-laying hens.

Battle lines formed this February with the Humane Society pitted against the powerful Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, Ohio Cattlemen's Association, Ohio Pork Producers Council and Ohio Poultry Association.

The message from the Humane Society was clear: Change your animal-husbandry practices or have them changed for you at the ballot box.

Said Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle, ''When we met with those industry leaders, we suggested we come to a meeting of the minds with a plan to phase out confinement systems in the state. My suggestion to agricultural leaders in Ohio was not to squander money on a campaign that was likely to fail.''

Humane Society view

If the two sides cannot reach an agreement, the Washington-based national Humane Society has threatened to ask Ohio voters to change state rules on the treatment of egg-laying chickens, breeding pigs and veal calves.

Those animals should be kept in cages or crates in which they have more room to live and to move, said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the factory farming campaign for the Humane Society.

The animals need enough room to stand up, lie down, turn around and extend their limbs. Anything less ''is cruel to animals and bad for food safety and inherently inhumane,'' Shapiro said. ''Animals raised for food deserve humane treatment, and our mission is to prevent animals' suffering.''

At the center of the debate are industry practices that provide 67 square inches of cage floor space per egg-laying chicken (that's two-thirds the size of a sheet of 81/2-by-11-inch paper), veal calf crates that are 22 inches wide and gestation crates for breeding pigs that are 2 feet wide, he said.

There are no federal or state rules on the size of farm animal cages or pens, only recommended minimal sizes from producer groups.

13-member board

Negotiations in Ohio have gone nowhere. Last month, the battle shifted to the Ohio Legislature.

Lawmakers responded by fast-tracking pre-emptive resolutions in the House and the Senate to create a 13-member state board to oversee animal treatment. Ohio residents probably will vote on the proposed board in a constitutional amendment Nov. 3.

On June 24, the House approved the resolution by an 84-13 vote. Rep. Kathleen Chandler, D-Kent, was the only local vote against the measure. The following day, the Senate version was adopted 32-0.

''Negotiating a settlement doesn't work when one side is holding a gun to my head,'' state Sen. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland, said.

The House and Senate must iron out a few differences in their resolutions.

Gov. Ted Strickland has pledged his support for the creation of what's being called the Livestock Care Standards Board.

It would be composed of one food-safety expert; two members of statewide farm groups; one veterinarian; the state veterinarian from the Ohio Department of Agriculture; the dean of an Ohio agriculture department at a college or university; one representative of the local Humane Society; two members of the public; and three family farmers, one chosen by the governor, one by the speaker of the House and one by the president of the Senate.

The director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture would chair the board that would oversee farm-animal care in Ohio.

It was no secret Ohio's plan was pushed through the legislature in an effort to derail the Humane Society's plan for even tougher livestock-containment rules.

How farmers see it

Ohio farm interests dislike the Humane Society plan because it is unneeded, more restrictive, takes control of Ohio farms out of Ohio and could increase farmers' costs, said Keith Stimpert, senior vice president of public policy with the 230,000-member Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

The Ohio Farm Bureau and the Humane Society debated the issue in a series of radio programs that aired across Ohio this weekend.

Ohio farmers see the Humane Society — the local dog-and-cat rescues operate independently from the national group — as the 800-pound gorilla with its 11 million members, an operating budget of about $92 million, its Hollywood glitz and a serious interest in promoting animal rights. It is the largest and richest group of its kind.

The 13-member state board is seen as a highly preferred option to a ballot measure from the Humane Society, and farmers who usually oppose government restrictions are strongly supporting the measure, said Burkett, 33, a Stark County dairy farmer with 400 milk cows and 300 heifers on 700 acres in Lawrence and Jackson townships.

Ohio farmers care for and care about their animals, said Burkett, whose dairy operations would not be affected by the Humane Society proposal.

Many farmers consider the Humane Society proposal shortsighted, emotionally driven and not based on science, he said.

Current federal and state rules and current farming practices are sufficient, said Burkett, one of 26 state board members of the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation.

Some Ohio farmers are convinced that the Humane Society is trying to make farm animals equal to humans, reduce consumption of animal products and promote veganism. Those charges are being circulated across Ohio in anti-Humane Society articles and fliers.

There are some within the Humane Society who support veganism, Shapiro said, but that is not an official policy or direction.

Both sides have conflicting science to support their views — with the Humane Society relying on European research and Ohio farmers relying on American studies, Stimpert said.

Creating bigger cages or crates for the animals might result in increased disease, fighting and cannibalism, he said.

''There will be tradeoffs,'' he said.

The two sides take ''very different approaches to what's a very emotional issue,'' Stimpert said in a bit of understatement.

Said Shapiro of the Humane Society: The chicken, pig and veal calf containment practices are ''the three most extreme forms of containment and the most inhumane practices associated with agribusiness. They have been banned by the European Union.''

When the Ohio Legislature took its action, the Humane Society's Ohio director, Dean Vickers, called it ''an obvious attempt to thwart meaningful reform.''

What's next?

What happens next in Ohio is unclear.

Shapiro said his group hopes that Ohio's constitutional amendment fails, and it is not known how active a role his group might take.

''We fear that people will vote for the board because it gives the appearance of being pro-animal, when the reality is far different,'' he said. ''It does little other than to preserve the status quo.''

His group is looking into the possibility of having volunteers circulate petitions to put California-style rules on the ballot in Ohio in November 2010, he said.

Stimpert said he was hopeful that the Humane Society might endorse the 13-member board or remain neutral in November.

That is unlikely, Shapiro said.

Stimpert said he would like to see the Humane Society give Ohio three to five years to let the state board get set up and begin operations.

If the Humane Society assumes a major role in November, brace for a heated, costly and emotional campaign pitting Ohio farm interests against the society, he said.

The Humane Society has become a powerful player. In recent years, it has negotiated agreements with Oregon, Colorado and Maine and won ballot changes in three other states: California, Arizona and Florida.

Its surveys show that 67 percent of Ohioans would back a California-style ballot issue in 2010, Shapiro said.

The two sides also disagree on what kind of a financial affect new rules might have in Ohio.

Ohio has an estimated 30 million egg-laying hens and 170,000 breeding pigs. The number of veal calves is not clear.

Ohio ranks No. 2 in the country for laying hens and egg production with a combined value in excess of $650 million, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ohio produces about 8 percent of the nation's eggs — about 7.1 billion a year worth about $483 million.

Implementing the changes sought by the Humane Society would raise the cost of an egg by 1 cent, Shapiro said.

Not so, says Luther Tweeten, an Ohio State University agricultural economist.

Ohio egg producers would see a 20 percent increase in costs for larger cages if a California-style rule were approved, and raising chickens in a barn would boost costs by 26 percent and raising hens in a free-range setting would boost costs by 46 percent, he said.

Ohio would probably lose 8,000 jobs in the poultry industry, and other grain-growing operations would be hurt, Tweeten said.

Consumers might see little change in prices at grocery stores, however, because Ohio egg producers would be unable to boost prices if surrounding states continued to produce cheaper eggs, he said.

Stark County's Burkett is preparing to ''get the word'' out to voters, especially city voters, this fall.

''For most farmers, the real question is: Are we talking about animal welfare or animal rights?'' he said.


The Associated Press contributed to this report. For information about the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, go to http://www.ofbf.org; for the Humane Society, go to http://www.hsus.org.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.

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