Moving Forward for Farm Animals

02/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As the inaugural hubbub dies down and Americans turn our collective attention to the future, we're hearing a lot about agriculture policy. One aspect of that policy is something to which, until recently, we haven't given much thought: the welfare of the nine billion animals who domestic factory farms raise and kill every year. But over the past twelve months, our acknowledgement of our responsibility to their welfare has irrevocably and fundamentally changed.

Farm animals, it seems, were everywhere in 2008. One year ago, a shocking slaughterhouse investigation revealed workers torturing downed dairy cows -- and prompted the nation's largest-ever meat recall. And the year ended with California's landslide vote passing Proposition 2, which will free nearly 20 million hens, pigs and calves from tiny, immobilizing cages on factory farms -- in the nation's largest agriculture state, no less.

By any standard, these events were the most high-profile farm animal news stories in U.S. history, attracting an onslaught of media attention and thrusting the issue of farm animal welfare before the public on a completely unprecedented scale. Thousands of news stories across the country and even around the world focused unflinchingly on the institutionalized, extreme cruelties farm animals endure -- captivating the public's attention and exposing millions to the idea that these animals are worthy of our moral consideration.

People listened. Americans were universally outraged when they viewed the slaughter plant footage exposing workers using forklifts, prods and waterboarding to force sick and injured cows to their feet and into the kill box. Congress held eight hearings that addressed not only food safety risks of allowing meat from diseased animals into the food supply, but also on the wanton, extreme cruelty perpetrated against the animals. The California legislature enacted stronger regulations against slaughtering downed cows and other animals. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to prohibit the slaughter of downed cows with no exceptions.

Prop 2 is the most popular citizen ballot initiative in California history, attracting a 63.5 percent landslide. More than eight million people voted in support of the idea that farm animals deserve at least enough room to stand up, turn around and extend their limbs. Oprah devoted an entire show to the issue. The New York Times editorialized in favor of the measure. The media's interest in and public's support for Prop 2 demonstrated one of its basic tenets: that concern for all animals, including those raised for food, is consistent with the better nature of every one of us.

Prop 2 was the most landmark achievement for farm animals in U.S. history, its ramifications extending far beyond California's borders. The measure is part of a growing movement to do nothing less than dispose of some of the worst abuses we inflict upon animals.

In 2008, Americans sent an unmistakable signal to Big Agribusiness that we will not tolerate the kinds of cruelty that have become standard practice. We unequivocally established farm animal protection as a social issue worthy of our concern on a national scale. And we recognized our collective responsibility to show mercy and compassion for those from whom we take so much. As we head into February and the rest of 2009, let's work to accomplish even more.