Farm Animal Welfare Is Improving, Thanks to Consumer Demand

Root Down Farm

In its detailed April 2017 report, Animal Welfare: Issues and Opportunities in the Meat, Poultry and Egg Markets in the US, market research publisher Packaged Facts found that 58 percent of US consumers are becoming increasingly more concerned about how farm animals are being raised, slaughtered and treated with antibiotics. Seeing the writing on the wall, food industry executives have responded by taking some steps to improve animal welfare in their supply chains. In the last two years, over 200 major US food brands - including McDonalds, Sodexo, Walmart, Jack in the Box and Yum Brands (which operates Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut) - have all announced that moving forward, they'll require their egg suppliers to stop using battery cages. These commitments have the potential to improve the lives of a significant portion of the 320 million egg laying hens in the US that are currently confined so tightly, they're unable to spread their wings or lay eggs in nests.

"Major food retailers like McDonald's and Wal-Mart know their customers care about animals" said Cody Carlson, staff attorney for Mercy for Animals in a phone interview. "With more and more people learning how factory farmed animals suffer in these restrictive cages, brand-conscious companies simply don't want to be associated with this kind of cruel and unethical activity."

However, even though cage-free eggs are often portrayed as coming from idyllic small family farms on rolling pastures, the reality is that on large non-organic chicken farms, where outdoor access isn't required, most chickens are kept in aviaries - multi-tiered barns where thousands or tens of thousands of birds roam around the building and hop from level to level.

Providing chickens with space to move freely may prevent some of the worst health conditions created by battery cages, but the aviaries still present their own issues. For example, a three year study by The Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply found that aviaries have almost twice the death rate as caged buildings, mostly due to increased aggression and cannibalism between birds. To address the issue, many aviary managers continue to rely on the factory farm industry practice of cutting the tip off of the chickens' beaks. "While it's been great to see increased engagement from the public around food, it's very important to clarify that cage-free does not mean high-welfare," says Emily Moose, Director of Outreach for A Greener World in an email interview.

Voters, Legislators Want Humane Farm Animal Treatment

But private food companies aren't the only ones paying attention to consumers' demands for more humane food.  Voters and state governments are also playing an important role in fight against inhumane treatment of farm animals. In 2008, California voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum banning extreme farm animal confinement in the state followed by the passage of bill AB 1437 in 2010, which requires that all eggs sold in California, regardless of origin, come from hens that are able to move freely. Now, attorney generals from thirteen states have asked the US Supreme Court to block the CA egg law, claiming that since taking effect in 2015, consumers across the country have paid collectively up to $350 million per year more for eggs. They also claim that the law violates the US Constitution's interstate commerce clause. The lawsuit is still pending.

But California was a trend starter. Ten years ago, only one state had a law on the books banning inhumane treatment of farm animals. To date, 10 states have banned extreme confinement while California has officially banned tail docking of dairy cows (several others have proposed similar legislation). According to a 2017 report from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, more than three quarters of all states have significantly improved their animal protection laws in the past five years (see infographic below/above).  

concentration of factory farm

Where Ag-Gag Laws exit by State

quality of animal welfare laws by state

Big Ag Lobbyists Losing Animal Welfare Fights

While some agribusiness lobbyists, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, are fighting battles against these new animal welfare laws, others are trying to block future reforms. Using big campaign contributions, big meat producers and processors like Smithfield Foods and Koch Industries convinced some lawmakers in states with large numbers of factory farms like Iowa, Kansas and Missouri to introduce legislation intended to undermine popular animal welfare laws. These include "ag-gag" laws designed to suppress or intimidate whistle blowers from documenting conditions at factory farms, as well as "Right to Farm" laws which block any restrictions on livestock or ranching practices, including extreme confinement.

As of today, seven states have passed ag-gag laws and one still has legislation pending. And on January 4, Idaho's ag-gag law was struck down by the 9th circuit court of appeals for being unconstitutional."The good news is that these efforts have backfired spectacularly," says Carlson. Of the 38 ag-gag bills introduced since 2011, almost all of them were defeated. Meanwhile, widespread media coverage of ag-gag laws has only drawn more attention to the problems of factory farming and increased public support for animal welfare regulations. As a result, fewer and fewer ag-gag laws are being introduced every year. Like the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant."

Consumers: Look for Third-Party Verification

So how can consumers concerned about the welfare of farm animals play their part in the support of humane production practices? "The easiest and most effective thing anyone can do to stop animal cruelty is to stop paying for it," said Carlson.  "Every time you sit down to eat, consider choosing from the variety of healthy, sustainable and delicious plant-based options out there." In addition, consumers should look for third party verified animal products, like the one provided through Animal Welfare Approved.

"As consumers, we often assume the best of food labels," says Moose. "But unfortunately experience has shown us that without third-party verification, most claims are just the same products in different packages...[these types of verifications] give farmers a way to transparently communicate their high-welfare, environmentally sustainable production practices, while giving consumers a way to purchase with confidence."