By Patricia Peak Klintberg
As images of oil-covered birds weigh on America’s conscience, it’s tough to criticize an organization whose very name conveys relief for animals. If the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) spent the majority of its money on such efforts, however, America’s farmers wouldn’t have a beef with the group.
According to HSUS’s own financial records, of the more than $130 million spent by the organization in 2009, $70 million went toward fund-raising, advocacy and public policy, and strategic communications. HSUS has used the bulk of this money to, in its own words, "square off against factory farmers, hunters and other animal industries" in 41 state ballot campaigns between 1990 and 2008. Last year, HSUS helped pass 121 new animal protection laws, according to the organization’s press office.
Recent HSUS efforts at the ballot box in Florida, Arizona and Cali-fornia showcase the results. Voters in all three states have agreed to ban gestation crates for sows, and in California voters have also made it illegal for farmers to use battery cages for laying hens. HSUS takes credit for these votes, stating that "the animal protection movement scored a series of major ballot measure victories on Election Day."
Paul Shapiro, senior director of HSUS’s Factory Farming Campaign, says the organization is only responding to what American consumers want. "Animals who are raised for food are subject to standard industry practices, such as veal crates, gestation crates and battery cages, which are unacceptable to most Americans," Shapiro says.
Former congressman Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), long an animal welfare advocate, strongly disagrees. "No one wants to be on the side of abusing animals, but there is no evidence modern production methods lead to abuse," Stenholm says.
The Farm Impact. HSUS bills itself as the nation’s largest animal protection organization and states that its main goal is to ban cockfighting, puppy mills, dog fighting, horse slaughter for human consumption, seal hunts and the docking of dog and dairy calf tails. Yet the organization’s lobbying efforts to end livestock agriculture are far-reaching.
For example, HSUS supported California’s Proposition 2, which mandates that as of Jan. 1, 2015, it shall be a misdemeanor for any person to confine a pregnant pig, calf raised for veal or egg-laying hen in a manner not allowing the animal to turn around freely, stand up, lie down and fully extend its limbs.
The hotly contested battle over the proposition led to an hour-long "Oprah" show, enabling folks on both sides to raise $14 million. The measure passed by 63%, overriding even opposition from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently went a step further by signing legislation that requires all eggs consumed in California by 2015 to be raised cage-free, including eggs imported into the state. More than 95% of the eggs produced in California come from hens that are caged. An even bigger concern is that California is a major egg deficit state, importing approximately 40% of its eggs from other states, according to United Egg Producers.
University of California, Davis, professor Joy A. Mench, director of the Center for Animal Welfare, has completed a study that shows farm costs of production could rise 20% with noncage systems, due to higher feed costs, higher laying hen mortality, higher direct housing costs and higher labor costs. Mench estimates that the California egg industry would likely relocate to other states during the five-year adjustment period.
"Egg farmers began housing hens in cages in the 1930s in order to reduce hen health problems, improve egg cleanliness and increase the economic efficiency of egg production," Mench says. While conventional cage systems restrict hens’ movement and natural behaviors, Mench says her research shows free-roaming chickens are more likely to fall victim to cannibalism, increased exposure to manure and broken bones.
Ohio Makes a Deal. HSUS has spent nearly two years focusing on squelching Ohio livestock production; Ohio is No. 2 in egg production and No. 8 in pork. HSUS used paid volunteers to gather signatures to get a measure on the November ballot that would specify California-like confinement standards.
In response, the Ohio agriculture industry has made a proactive effort to work with HSUS by developing the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. This board is charged with ensuring the proper care of livestock in the state. It is made up of a diverse group of animal care experts, including a humane society representative.
With confinement standards certain to win a place on the ballot, Gov. Ted Strickland’s office announced that a deal had been brokered with HSUS and farm groups on June 30, 2010. In return for holding off on filing a petition signed by 500,000 voters, the animal rights organization agreed to work with the Livestock Care Standards Board to help farmers change how they raise eggs, pork and veal.
All parties have agreed to recommend the following changes to the state legislature:
• A ban on veal crates, effective 2017.
• A ban on new gestation crates in the state after Dec. 31, 2010. Existing facilities are grandfathered but must cease use of these crates within 15 years.
• A moratorium on new battery cage confinement houses for laying hens.
• Regulations regarding the manner in which sick and injured farm animals can be killed.
• A ban on the transport of downer cows for slaughter.
Ohio Farm Bureau Federation Executive Vice President Jack Fisher says of the agreement: "The idea of letting HSUS have any say whatsoever in farm production practices is distasteful. But if HSUS was on the ballot this year, the campaign could have cost farmers their reputation. We faced an onslaught of ugly animal abuse commercials. Thirty years of reputation building would vanish in the span of a 30-second television ad. Never mind that the ads are misleading, they’ve proven effective.
"Their $100 million budget is the battering ram that got them there. A win against HSUS in November wouldn’t have dealt them a deadly blow, but rather a temporary setback. We could continue down this path year after year, throwing money into political campaigns until we were finally outspent."
Luther Tweeten, Ohio State University professor emeritus of agricultural trade and policy, believes consumer education is important to understanding the trade-offs between animal welfare regulations and the impacts such regulations have on Ohio agriculture and its overall economy.
"Anybody would like more freedom and more room, but you have to understand that the animal welfare issues from a scientific standpoint aren’t really clear. When we measure all of the factors that go into stress, researchers can’t seem to find that confinement has a big effect on the performance of the animal," Tweeten says.
So the argument has gone from a scientifically objective standpoint to an ethical viewpoint, Tweeten says. "From that perspective, however, you have to be aware of the trade-offs between ethics and objectivity."
For example, animal welfare legislation would have negatively impacted Ohio agriculture while providing economic advantages for other states not bound by such regulations. In addition, the implementation of national animal welfare legislation would open doors to more imports of eggs from countries whose animal welfare practices may be below U.S. standards.
Fast-Food Advocacy. While only 5% of eggs are produced cage-free, that hasn’t stopped some of America’s biggest companies and fast-food outlets from jumping on the HSUS bandwagon.
Wendy’s, Sonic, Subway, Red Robin, Quiznos, Denny’s, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. have agreed to use cage-free eggs in their operations, according to HSUS. Food companies Sara Lee and Unilever also have signed on to the cage-free movement. Likewise, supermarket chains, including Wal-Mart, Costco, Harris Teeter, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Safeway, have all pledged to increase sales of cage-free eggs.
"What they’ve really done is agreed to increase the percentage of cage-free eggs they use to mollify HSUS," says Gene Gregory, president of the Georgia-based United Egg Producers. For example, a major food manufacturer recently announced it is replacing 1 million eggs with cage-free eggs.
"One million sounds like a lot, but 4,000 chickens can produce that amount in a year. It is practically nothing," Gregory says.
Gregory understands the pressure on companies. But, he says, "by allowing their names to be used by HSUS, at the end of the day these companies are participating in an attack on their suppliers."
And that’s not the worst of it, according to Stenholm, who says the burden of fewer, more expensive eggs will fall on the poor.
"If we adopt policies that increase cost and decrease production, the burden will fall the heaviest on those who are least able to pay. That’s the commonsense side of things that people don’t see," Stenholm says. "You’ve got to do both: take care of your animals and produce plenty of food."
How the Money Flows
You might be amazed at who funds organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and other activist groups. Hundreds of deep-pocketed foundations, celebrities and companies support anti-agriculture groups.
Check out these Web sites:
Tax Laws Encourage Online Donations
New tax laws now encourage corporations to contribute to charities such as the Humane Society of the United States. Companies can withhold 5% of their net income from taxable income through such donations.
Consider that in 2009, HSUS raised in excess of $7 million from online donations alone. That’s less than the Salvation Army, which raised $13 million online that year, but more than Save the Children ($3.3 million) and the Special Olympics ($1.4 million) combined, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a publication dedicated to covering the nonprofit world. And since online donations go straight into HSUS coffers, there is no method to earmark them for animal rescue or other efforts.
In addition, online donations are growing because they provide a paper trail. The Internal Revenue Service will accept a charitable deduction only if there is proper documentation. Online donations help donors fulfill this requirement, since giving records are stored online and donors can print them for tax preparation.
Farmers Fight Back
America’s plugged-in, tweeted-up and Facebooked farmers are beginning to fight back against anti-ag groups, in particular the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
This past spring, using Facebook and Twitter, agri-advocates caused Casella Wines of Australia, which makes Yellow Tail wine, to back away from an open-ended $100,000 gift to the HSUS. After thousands of e-mails calling for a boycott of the wine, Casella retreated, specifying HSUS was to use its donation for animal rescue efforts only.
Pilot Travel Centers of Tennessee, which sells fuel and food to travelers in 41 states, was also barraged with negative e-mails when aggies learned of a $52,000 donation to HSUS. The company vowed not to donate to HSUS in the future and said earlier donations to HSUS went for rural veterinary care, disaster relief and a fund to rescue animals left behind in foreclosed homes.
In total, farmers managed to ensure that $152,000 from these companies, which profess at length to care about agriculture, will be solely directed to animal rescue efforts.
Pilot Travel Centers said in a statement: "We sincerely regret any actions that led to the misperception of our support of this organization. Pilot Travel Centers is a strong supporter of agriculture interests in our home state of Tennessee and across the country."
Top Producer, September 2010