LANSING, Michigan — Michigan is one step away from approving a new bill to regulate animal care in agreement with standards outlined by one of the nation’s most active animal welfare organizations — The Humane Society of the United States.
On Sept. 30, the Michigan Senate approved, by a vote of 36-0, a bill that will ban the use of battery cages for egg production and gestation stalls for swine in about 10 years, and ban use of veal crates in three years.
The bill was introduced to the House earlier this year, after top agriculture officials in the state met with HSUS officials and learned of HSUS’ interest in phasing out the use of gestation stalls for sows, cages for layers and stalls for veal calves.
The bill introduced and the version the House and Senate approved became very different after HSUS involvement.
Two bills were initially drafted to ensure state agriculture officials would oversee their own industry.
H.B. 5127 codified the livestock industry’s quality assurance programs as the basis for animal care and designated the Michigan Department of Agriculture as the authority in charge of implementing animal health care standards.
H.B. 5128 was drafted to authorize the appointment of an animal care advisory board to advise the department of agriculture on animal care issues.
Both bills were similar to legislation proposed in Ohio, now known as Ohio’s Issue 2 — a preemptive ballot initiative to establish a livestock care standards board and policy for that state. (Read the ballot language in this .pdf.)
But in Michigan, the legislation stalled in the House under pressure from environmental groups and HSUS. Michigan’s leading livestock organizations then opted to compromise with the demands of HSUS and form what is known as Substitute House Bill 5127.
HSUS — not affiliated with county humane societies, has led similar initiatives in other states, including California (2008) and Michigan and Ohio in 2009.
If the governor signs the bill into law, Michigan will become the seventh state to ban gestation crates, the fifth to ban veal crates and the second to ban battery cages.
Arizona, California and Florida passed similar measures through ballot initiatives, and Maine, Colorado and Oregon have passed related laws in their state legislatures.
Jim Byrum, president of Michigan Agri-Business Association, said the legislation was negotiated in response to consumer demand and perceptions.
“This legislation, though it will cause change in how eggs are produced and swine is handled, are the result of extensive negotiations between the industry and HSUS,” Byrum said in a released statement.
“No one likes change and no one likes to spend money to make those changes. The fact of the matter is that agriculture recognizes we must be more responsive to consumer demand and perceptions. This legislation is a manifestation of that realization.”
But whether producers came together or were made to come together is the question being debated.
State Rep. David Agema, R-74th District, spoke critically of the bill following House approval Sept. 16. He was among the 20 who voted against it, likening it to “negotiating with terrorists.”
“Basically we’re being kind of forced to do something to farmers they don’t really want; they’re doing that (legislation) in hopes something worse won’t happen,” he said.
He said farmers figuratively have a gun held to their head by organizations that threaten, saying Michigan farmers were pressured into doing something many did not want to.
“I’m not willing to encumber my farmers with more rules, regulation and expenses,” he said, explaining his nay vote. “Maybe it’s time our farmers start standing up (to activism).”
Although the legislation passed the House and Senate with majority votes, Michigan producers still disagree over whether it was necessary, and whether they could have done anything to stop it.
Pat Albright and his family live in southcentral Michigan and raise about 180 sows and sell about 900 show pigs to 4-H and FFA exhibitors each year.
Even without legislation, the farm is actively involved in the care of its animals, and controlling environmental impact. Albright’s farm voluntarily participates in the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MEAP), and he’s a member of the Pork Quality Assurance (PQAPlus) program.
With so many things in place already, the new legislation was unnecessary, he explained.
“This type of legislation is difficult for us to accept because there’s some feeling that if we say we’re going to change, that we must be admitting that we’re doing something wrong and we’re not,” he said.
“This (S.H.B. 5127) was agreed to because it appears to be, on several different levels, what is going to happen to us, not because we wanted it to happen.”
By going ahead with the legislation, Michigan producers ensure themselves adequate time to adjust to regulations they say probably would have surfaced, no matter what.
Swine and pork producers have 10 years to adjust, and veal producers have three.
In a letter to producers, Dennis DeYoung, president of Michigan Pork Producers Association, said if the decision were left “to the whims of the voters,” it’s likely regulations would still have passed, but with less time for producers to react and a stronger likelihood regulations would have been more severe, such as eliminating stall use altogether.
“The compromise legislation does allow them (swine producers) to use the stalls for breeding purposes and farrowing,” said Sam Hines, executive vice president of the pork producers association.
Hines and DeYoung both cited preliminary studies as reason to believe votes from the “consuming public” would not have supported modern agriculture.
“To have them (non-farmers) fully understand why we use a lot of the systems that we currently use was going to be a monumental challenge,” Hines said. “Realizing the alternatives, we felt that this was the best option for them (producers).”
In exchange for approving compromise legislation with HSUS, the organization has signed a written memorandum that it will not pursue the matter on a ballot initiative, Hines said.
But producers like Albright say the battle is not finished and farmers across the nation need to share their message.
“We in agriculture have a huge job ahead of us,” Albright said. “We have been the very best in the world at producing, but we have not spent a whole lot of time telling our story. This should be the start of a wake-up call that we have to get out there and explain our story.”