Sometimes citizens can support or oppose legislative policy to make a difference for farmed animals, workers, the climate or the environment. Farm Forward has led or supported policy advocacy on issues like intensive confinement of farmed animals, megadairies, slaughter line speeds, CAFO worker rights, and “ag-gag” laws. Our new Animal Agriculture Accountability Project, launched in conjunction with Yale Law School, will accelerate state and local legal policy interventions to hold industrial animal agriculture accountable for the harms the industry inflicts on people, animals, and the environment.
This is a chapter from Farm Forward’s report, The Farmed Animal Protection Movement: Common Strategies for Improving and Protecting the Lives of Farmed Animals. “Legislation and Policy Advocacy” represents Strategy 2 in the report.
When surveyed, the public strongly supports legal protections for farmed animals, but corporate influence within U.S. state and federal legislatures makes it extremely difficult to pass legal protections for farmed animals. As a result, consumers in at least nine states have succeeded in passing ballot initiatives that address farmed animal welfare. Advocates have also found success overturning “ag-gag” laws in court, and the creation of three centers for animal law at prestigious law schools (Harvard, Yale, and Lewis and Clark) may generate a variety of novel legal strategies to challenge industrial animal agriculture in coming decades.
Structure of the Strategy
Legislative and policy advocacy have three components, usually pursued independently:
- Mobilizing consumers to support state ballot initiatives that address the worst conditions for farmed animals.
- Lobbying state and federal governments to defeat, adopt, or modify legislation, policies, and rules, and
- Suing state or federal governments to challenge laws and rules.
Just two laws apply to the transport and slaughter of farmed animals: the 28-Hour Law, and the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act. In addition to being weakly enforced, these laws exclude poultry, who, both by their sheer numbers and their living conditions, are the animals most in need of protection. USDA Organic Standards include limited protections for farmed animals, but the provisions related to animal welfare are voluntary (and are thus in effect nonexistent), and the Trump administration has rolled back what little progress has been made within USDA Organic Standards.1
All 50 states have felony animal cruelty laws on the books that prohibit unnecessary suffering of farmed animals at human hands, but these laws exempt all “customary farming practices,” so the industry gets to determine which practices are commonplace (and therefore legal).
Existing federal legal protections for farmed animals stop far short of preventing the worst abuses of factory farming, and prospects for passing new legislation, or tightening existing requirements, are bleak. No federal laws protect animals on farms.
Beginning in the early 2000s, animal advocates have had great success improving legal protections for farmed animals at the state level. Ballot initiatives—mechanisms for citizens to circumvent legislatures to enact state laws—have been particularly effective. When a state is determined to be a candidate for a ballot initiative, advocates commission polling, identify resonant issues, draft the initiative, mobilize paid and volunteer signature gatherers, raise money, develop and distribute advertising, and work to increase public support and ensure that the initiative passes at the ballot box.
The first successful ballot initiative related to meat did not involve farmed animals at all: California’s Proposition 6 in 1998 banned the slaughter and sale of horse meat for human consumption (which was rare at the time and almost always for export). Over time, ballot initiatives became more aggressive, taking aim at targets more central to farmed animal industries: pig gestation crates (FL, 2002), gestation crates and calf hutches (AZ, 2006), gestation crates, calf hutches, and battery cages for laying hens (CA, 2008), and all of the above plus prohibiting the sale of eggs and uncooked veal and pork from animals kept in those
conditions (MA, 2016; CA, 2018). In response, farmed animal industries have put forward ballot initiatives of their own, often termed “right to farm” by those industries and “right to harm” by advocates. Such measures amending state constitutions to protect confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have been adopted
in North Dakota (2012), Missouri (2014), and Oklahoma (2016).
Legislation and Lobbying
Advocates also lobby state and federal governments to defeat, adopt, or modify a variety of legislation, policies, and rules. 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations are permitted to lobby government officials directly (through contact with officials and their staff), as well as mobilize their constituents to lobby, though certain limits apply.2 Often lobbying efforts target legislators, but relationships are also cultivated with members of the executive branch and other administrative bodies. While farmed animal advocacy organizations rarely employ full-time lobbyists directly, they sometimes hire contract lobbyists who lobby on behalf of multiple employers. More commonly, animal protection organizations tap existing staff to handle direct government communications, or more commonly still, to lobby indirectly through grassroots mobilization of members and allies who communicate with government officials via phone, letters, and social media.
Since 2007, animal advocates have also used state legislatures to develop and enact statutes that advance farmed animal welfare. That year, the Oregon legislature passed a law prohibiting gestation crates. Other state legislatures that have enacted laws prohibiting gestation crates, calf hutches, and battery cages include Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington, with California and Michigan passing laws banning in-state sales of eggs from hens kept in cages. Advocates continue to monitor state legislatures for similar opportunities and to block unfriendly legislation.
The past few years have seen a sharp increase in animal-use industries seeking to restrict legislatively the use of terms like “milk” and “burger” for plant-based or cultured products, with groups including the ACLU joining animal advocates working toward legal protections for plant-based and cultured products’ use of
Policy advocacy is not limited to legislative advocacy. For example, in 2018 the USDA proposed a rule to deregulate the speed at which slaughter lines are operated, meaning that meat companies would have no limit on the number of pigs who could be slaughtered per minute. A cross-sector coalition of more than 35 organizations organized public comments to oppose the rule.3 The USDA (and any such administrative agency) is required by statute to publish proposed rules, invite public comments, and consider and respond to every unique argument that it receives prior to the publication of a final rule. Such advocacy can delay a rule’s implementation, or result in revisions or repeal.
Advocates also use litigation to challenge laws that facilitate cruelty to farmed animals. For example, advocates have sued in several states to prevent or overturn the implementation of socalled “ag-gag” laws, which punish anyone—including employees, journalists, and members of the public—who documents conditions for farmed animals without formal permission. Advocates have successfully overturned ag-gag laws on First Amendment grounds in Idaho, Iowa, and Utah, and challenges are currently underway in several other states.
Ballot initiatives have been widely successful and provide farmed animal advocates an opportunity to work in cross-sector coalitions. For example, California’s 2008 Prop 2 coalition was spearheaded by two animal protection groups (HSUS and Farm Sanctuary) and supported by a number of others, but also included the Sierra Club, the California Democratic Party, the Center for Food Safety, the United Farm Workers, the California Council of Churches, and others. Public sentiment had shifted so far in favor of farmed animals ten years later that California’s 2018 Prop 12 was supported by a coalition including not two but 17 animal protection organizations, including three local humane societies. Notably, Prop 12 was opposed by PETA and two other animal protection organizations, which argued that improving the conditions of animal exploitation perpetuates cruelty in the name of humane reform, and falsely reassures consumers that after the regulations’ implementation, animal products can be purchased ethically.
The FAPM has fallen short when it comes to “administrative advocacy,” that is, monitoring the implementation of policies once they are enacted. In other social justice fields, administrative advocacy has received more attention in recent years as advocates have recognized that what matters are not only the
laws that are passed but the ways in which laws are enforced. For example, anti-hunger advocates might force the creation of a unit within an agency to assist seniors with food stamp applications, or anti-poverty advocates might work with an agency to increase the percentage of Medicaid applications determined eligible in real time.4 In the same way, FAPM advocates could work with state governments to spot-check compliance with successful ballot initiatives, or work to influence the USDA to dedicate more resources to enforcing the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act. Overlooking implementation is particularly concerning in the farmed animal protection movement because CAFOs receive little if any public oversight.
Policy and legislative advocacy will be bolstered by an infusion of trained legal experts in the coming decades. New institutions like the Harvard Animal Law and Policy Center, the Yale Law Animals and Ethics Program, and the Lewis & Clark Center for Animal Law Studies are beginning to turn out legal scholars and practitioners whose vocational aim is to strengthen and expand animal law. Several organizations have teams dedicated to advancing policy work, including the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Humane Society of the United States (which has state-level policymakers focused on local and regional policy issues), and the Good Food Institute (which focuses on policy issues pertaining to the plant-based and cultivated meat industries).
Given widespread public support for farmed animal welfare, the dearth of federal protections for farmed animals, and the movement’s successful track record so far, continued work on ballot initiatives, legislation, rules, policies, and court cases is justified and could be expanded.
In 2020, several Democratic presidential candidates advocated for a national moratorium on new CAFOs, which may be an indication of how widespread support is for new legislative or legal protections for farmed animals.5
The growing concern about the role of CAFOs in increasing the risk of pandemic diseases could make the next few years particularly ripe for advancing legislation that regulates animal agriculture.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Humane Society of the United States, and Open Philanthropy Project have all provided significant funding for state ballot initiatives. Academic animal law programs have received significant funding from individual funders and foundations.