How We Punish Cruelty To Farmed Animals
This article from the the Michigan Law Review is a case study of a 2008 animal cruelty incident involving cows at the Hallmark Meat Packing Plant in California. The incident resulted in the plant being closed, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issuing the largest meat recall in American history, and the arrest of two plant employees for animal cruelty. This article was written by two members of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which played a major role in uncovering and punishing the abusers.
While consumers have been gradually taking interest in the welfare of animals raised for meat or milk, the government has been slow to reflect this change. Several state-level measures have been passed banning certain inhumane practices like gestation crates. At the federal level, however, livestock animals have virtually no protection. They are expressly excluded from the federal Animal Welfare Act, and livestock birds are given no protection under the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, despite making up 95% of land animals killed in the US for food each year.
Furthermore, there is evidence that the Hallmark case is not the exceptional circumstance that many have framed it as being; Hallmark was honored as the USDA’s “Supplier of the Year” just 4 years prior, in 2004. The penalties incurred by the abuse and torture of animals at Hallmark are mostly due to the fact that they were made public in an investigation by HSUS. The USDA’s reaction was weak and slow, and was only hastened and strengthened by the HSUS working with the San Bernardino County District Attorney to criminally prosecute two plant employees.
Even if the USDA was willing to strictly enforce its rules, it lacks the means to do so. The most powerful measure at its disposal is a written citation, which only requires the plant manager to respond with a plan for corrective action. At worst, a plant will be temporarily closed. The USDA was given the power to punish wrongdoers in the 2002 Farm Bill, with the stipulation that the it must investigate the wrongdoing itself and recommend regulations. However, the agency hasn’t done this. The authors draw a comparison between the USDA and another regulatory agency: the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. In contrast to the weak responses available to the USDA, OSHA is allowed to seek both fines and jail time for workers who simply tip off their co-workers about an impending inspection.
The political will to protect livestock animals exists. The San Bernardino DA was willing to prosecute animal abusers, even if the USDA was not. At the time of this article’s publishing, a bill was introduced in Congress that would expand the scope of the USDA’s punitive power. However, this bill – S.2770 – was ultimately shelved.
The authors recommend that livestock animals be given protection at the federal level, rather than relying on state laws. To accomplish this, they argue that the USDA should be given the power to punish wrongdoers with fines and jail time, as OSHA is capable of doing. This must be paired with the will to actually fight wrongdoing, but this currently exists in the public sphere and is becoming more and more politically viable.