Michigan agriculture industry supports proactive, aggressive stance on animal care

LANSING, June 26, 2009 – Several members of Michigan’s agriculture community provided testimony in support of House Bills 5127 and 5128 which would ensure that holistic and definitive animal care standards are established in state law for farm animals raised in Michigan, and the standards can be modified with public input to adapt to evolving science.

The bills are sponsored by Reps. Mike Simpson (D-Jackson) and Jeff Mayes (D-Bay City) and have the support of a broad-based agricultural coalition that includes the Dairy Farmers of America, GreenStone Farm Credit Services, Michigan Agri-Business Association, Michigan Allied Poultry Industries, Michigan Cattlemen’s Association, Michigan Corn Growers Association, Michigan Equine Partnership, Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Milk Producers Association, Michigan Pork Producers Association, Michigan Sheep Breeders Association, Michigan Soybean Association and Michigan Veterinary Medical Association. The legislation also has the support of the Michigan Department of Agriculture (MDA).

“The agriculture community respects that some consumers want reassurance that farm animals raised for food are well cared for. This legislation validates the ethical standards demonstrated by Michigan’s livestock farmers and assures families that the meat, milk and eggs on their tables have been raised with the highest safety and accountability standards,” said Sam Hines, executive vice president of the Michigan Pork Producers Association.

Many livestock sectors already adhere to national animal care standards, but standards are still being developed for some species. House Bills 5127 and 5128 would require that animal care standards be adopted and enforced on Michigan farms with the aid of third-party audits and penalties to bring farms into compliance.

Given the state’s limited budget resources, coalition members say House Bills 5127 and 5128 are smart to propose using existing scientific standards that are nationally accepted by food companies and retailers as a foundation to build from, and requiring that the standards be reviewed once every five years – at a minimum – to ensure that the latest and most advanced standards are followed in Michigan.

They also say forming a citizen-based Animal Care Advisory Council to review the standards and make recommendations to the Michigan Commission of Agriculture and MDA for ultimate adoption is only appropriate, as the council provides a public structure and the Agriculture Commission and MDA are the state entities charged with oversight of production agriculture and food safety. To ensure that the council is “evenly stacked” for fair representation of all stakeholders, only two farmers directly involved in production agriculture would be appointed. The remainder of the council would be comprised of veterinarians as well as individuals representing an animal welfare agency, animal welfare research, restaurants and Michigan’s food processing and retail food industries.

“This system would give Michigan the most proactive approach in the nation to making changes to animal care standards and ensure that everyone has a voice,” said Larry Julian, legislative liaison for the Michigan Equine Partnership.

Dr. Janice Swanson, director of animal welfare with the Michigan State University Department of Animal Science, is neutral on the legislation, but in providing expert testimony lent credibility to the utilization of industry standards as a measuring stick for animal care.

“If you asked me 10 years ago I would have said no,” she said, explaining that animal care standards initially started out as industry-led initiatives that were limited in scope. However, as more food companies have taken an active interest over the years, the marketplace has dictated science-based standards and more public input in the process. “So many of the standards in place today are very scientific and multi-disciplinary. They consider all factors from animal behavior to animal health and food safety, and you need this holistic approach.”

Swanson points out that many of the standards that House Bills 5127 and 5128 would codify address animal care for livestock in all types of housing; this includes animals in caged as well as cage-free systems. Legislative initiatives in other states like California have focused exclusively on behavioral freedom and, depending on how the performance standards are legally interpreted, they could conflict with an animal’s natural behavior, she said. For instance, hens are flocking animals, so providing California-raised hens enough room to extend their wings and turn around without touching another hen could prove challenging to meet compliance even under cage-free housing conditions.

Coalition members emphasize that animal care standards mandated by House Bills 5127 and 5128 go beyond emotion-driven agendas that narrowly focus on single issues such as animal housing and farm size.

“They take into consideration everything involved in providing food safety, animal welfare, and a wholesome and affordable food supply,” said George House, executive director of Michigan Allied Poultry Industries.

The proposed legislation doesn’t go to unnecessary extremes but doesn’t under-deliver on animal care either, said Wayne H. Wood, president of the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“The intent of the legislation is sound, and that’s to guarantee the continued care and ethical treatment of all animals in the food chain,” said Wood. “These bills provide a holistic, balanced approach that is good for animals, people, rural communities and our state.”

The House agriculture committee took initial testimony on June 24-25. An identical package of bills, 654 and 655, has been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Wayne Kuipers (R-Holland) and Gerald VanWoerkom (R-Norton Shores). These bills also have the support of the broad-based agricultural coalition, and have been referred to the Senate Agriculture and Bioeconomy Committee for future action.