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Starting with chickens, U.S. can treat livestock better

The Humane Society of the United States says

The Humane Society of the United States says its investigator found egg-laying chickens at a farm in Texas crammed in cages with dead birds, sometimes unable to reach food and water, and eggs covered in blood and feces. Photo Credit: Humane Society of the United States, 2010

Americans love animals, yet this year each of us will eat around 200 pounds of beef, pork and chicken.

All that meat-eating has long-range environmental and health implications. But there's a more immediate problem: The meat and eggs we consume comes mostly from pigs, poultry and cattle raised in conditions that would make diners cringe.

Most animal cruelty laws exempt farming. Thus, animal husbandry practices that nobody would countenance when inflicted on a dog or cat are routine when it comes to livestock. Most egg-laying hens, for example, spend their lives packed into wire cages smaller than a letter-size sheet of paper, unable even to spread their wings.

We can and should do better. All animals -- even those most of us encounter only as food -- deserve humane treatment. A recent agreement to improve the lot of America's 280 million egg-laying hens could be a model for progress.

Once at loggerheads, the nation's egg producers have joined forces with the Humane Society of the United States to support sensible bipartisan legislation in Congress that would require the industry to adopt the "enriched colony" system for caged birds over the next 15 years. This system, the most restrictive allowed in the European Union, would provide nearly twice as much space for hens, along with features such as perches, nesting boxes and scratching areas.

Within a year of enactment, the law would require that all cartons specify whether they contain eggs from caged, enriched system, cage-free or free-range hens. In Europe such labeling has led a growing number of consumers to choose eggs produced more humanely. Egg producers, who are backing the legislation to head off a potentially costly patchwork of state laws, say eggs are likely to remain affordable, since farmers will phase in the colony system as part of their normal investment cycle -- and hens are healthier and more productive in such an environment.


Meat producers should take note. In polls, Americans overwhelmingly support humane treatment for farm animals. That support is likely to grow as part of what philosophers have called the expanding circle of moral concern. "At one time," wrote the historian W.E.H. Lecky way back in 1869, "the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all of humanity, and finally its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world."

That feeling isn't being felt everywhere. Meat consumption is soaring in booming countries such as China, and inhumane factory-style farming is spreading to meet this fast-growing demand.

On the other hand, rising consciousness among U.S. consumers is leading meat suppliers, supermarkets and restaurant chains to demand improvements in the lives of the creatures that are so prominent in our diet. Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's, Hormel, Smithfield Foods and Safeway, for example, deserve credit for moving -- albeit slowly -- away from pork producers that immobilize pigs for most of their lives in tight cages. Eight states have banned such confinement, although New York has not.

Groups opposed to animal cruelty would love to see federal legislation to improve the lot of other farm animals. But agribusiness is powerful; no such bill can pass Congress without industry support. Indeed, pork and beef producers oppose the egg bill out of concern that their industries might be next.

That's shortsighted. Meat producers should realize that, as the locavore movement has demonstrated, interest in more humane and environmentally friendly farming practices is growing fast. They should get out in front of this trend by improving livestock conditions. As time goes by, people are only likely to become more aware of how their meat is made -- and absent improvement, less happy with those who produce it.