Agriculture, Humane Society agendas clash

03/29/2010 12:04 AM

03/29/2010 12:04 AM

An escalating conflict in the United States pits appetites against compassion for animals — and the Midwest holds some key battleground.

Agriculture interests see an enemy in the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society is pushing ahead, state by state, for laws against such things as "puppy mills" and intensive confinement of animals in factory farms.

Some of the arenas:

* In Kansas, the president of the state Farm Bureau is firing off complaints to corporations that show signs of empathy toward the Humane Society.

* In Missouri, there may be a showdown on the November ballot over a proposed law to regulate dog breeders; its opponents are led by the head of the state pork association.

* Nationally, agribusiness interests launch daily salvos against the Humane Society through a new outlet at HumaneWatch.org.

The society says its critics are spewing inflammatory rhetoric.

"They see (our) strength and they're very paranoid about it," said Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle. "But we remind them and others that we are seeking simply to curb the worst abuses in livestock."

The industry doesn't buy that.

"Ultimately, the Humane Society wants to make it more difficult to produce livestock on the scale that this country requires to meet demand," said Don Lipton, a spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Industry argues that agriculture is vitally important to the economy and that each farmer produces food to sustain 155 people. Unnecessary rules on animal welfare pushed by the society, it says, will drive up prices, cause food shortages and force farmers out of business.

The society denies that it wants to destroy livestock production, although it does advocate eating less meat for health reasons and because livestock farms are heavy greenhouse-gas emitters.

Livestock confinement

The Humane Society has 11 million supporters who contributed nearly $87 million in 2008. It calls itself a mainstream voice with a mission "to celebrate animals and confront cruelty."

Among its crusades, the society fights against intensive confinement of livestock in factory farms. That includes cages with floor spaces smaller than a piece of typing paper for egg-laying hens and crates for pregnant sows that don't allow them to move around for months.

Among the Humane Society's tactics is buying stock in publicly held corporations so that it can introduce shareholder resolutions for more humane animal treatment. It has aimed this tool at McDonald's, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and the Kroger Co., and intends to use it with Jack in the Box, Steak 'n Shake and Domino's Pizza.

Among the Humane Society's victories have been announcements by some companies, such as Wendy's, Sonic Corp. and Subway, that they will start to buy cage-free eggs. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest grocery, said last month that all of the eggs under its own label were now cage-free.

The Humane Society has also successfully promoted ballot initiatives or legislation in a succession of states to ban intensive livestock confinement. At least six states now have laws banning or phasing out sow-gestation crates.

Producers' views

Defenders of big livestock production say it is in farmers' self-interest not to abuse their animals.

"If the farmer or rancher wants to be profitable he has to take care of the animals so they can take care of him," said Steve Baccus, president of the Kansas Farm Bureau.

He added that cages kept chickens from injuring each other and crates prevented sows from crushing their piglets.

But the society's successes have been a wake-up call for the industry, said Lipton of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, which bills itself as a research organization on food, beverage and lifestyle issues, last month launched a Web site to fight back. It accuses the Humane Society of soaking up money from people who mistakenly believe the national organization helps support their local dog and cat shelters. It then uses that money, critics say, to promote its agenda.

The Humane Society acknowledges that it does not run local animal shelters and does not make a lot of grants. Instead, it champions legislation across the country, operates five large animal-care sanctuaries, and provides mobile veterinary care in poor areas.

The 115,000-member Kansas Farm Bureau is also in the fray. Baccus recently sent a letter to the chief executive officer of Bank of America urging the institution to reconsider donating 25 cents to the Humane Society for every $100 charged on one of its credit cards.

And last month, Baccus wrote the CEO of Sonic with a warning about its new animal-welfare policy.

"I have heard from literally hundreds of our members who say, as a result of your decision, they've made their last visit to Sonic," Baccus wrote.

In Missouri, the immediate issue is dogs.

Missouri commercially breeds more puppies than any other state, and the State Auditor's Office has found that enforcement against cruel and unhealthy conditions is lacking.

The society is working to collect about 100,000 signatures to place a measure on the ballot in November to regulate puppy mills.

Agribusiness interests say the bill does nothing to boost enforcement and is a feint by the Humane Society to increase its leverage against big livestock.

"The dog-breeder issue is simply the beginning, we feel, of what can happen in the future with a broader agenda relating to agriculture," said Estil Fretwell, spokesman for the Missouri Farm Bureau.

Agribusiness recently formed Missourians for Animal Care to fight the initiative. The chairman is the director of the Missouri Pork Association.

The Humane Society's Pacelle said the puppy mill bill had nothing to do with livestock and that the industry used the same false argument about threats to farmers before Missourians approved a cockfighting ban in 1998.

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