It seems that some people can't see how a regulation that looks good on paper will have bad consequences. That is what is happening at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with a new proposal that would have major animal welfare consequences if it's finalized. I always worry about rules that come out of Washington because the bureaucrats who write them often have no practical experience in the real world and that sure comes through in this latest missive.
Congress told USDA's Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) to write some rules about what constitutes an "undue preference" in livestock marketing and procurement. GIPSA is the agency the monitors the marketing of livestock and poultry to ensure that things are done properly and that markets are competitive. But the USDA has gone way beyond what Congress told the department to do. As proposed, the department wants to prohibit meat packers from purchasing, acquiring or receiving swine or cattle from another packer or packer-affiliated company.
That means that an integrated beef-processing company that owns feedlots or production facilities would, for example, be required to ship cattle to either its own plant or sell the livestock to an independent dealer, perhaps hundreds of miles away, rather than selling the cattle or pigs to another company's packing plant very close to the ranch or farm.
Adding shipping time is stressful to livestock and stands to increase injury and potential death losses, particularly among pigs because they are more subject to transport stress. Companies that don't want to ship the livestock the additional distance would be forced to sell their livestock to independent dealers, who serve as middle-men, to facilitate transactions. This also would present unnecessary animal welfare risks, because the dealers likely would not have the animal handling programs and standards in place that have become the standards among production and processing facilities.
I'm also worried that the proposed rule would complicate and compromise the effectiveness of many established animal welfare-certification programs by requiring another level of paperwork and recordkeeping to track the additional transactions and premiums paid to producers for higher quality or niche raised animals.
Niche producers are some of the great success stories in livestock agriculture. Companies with products that bear labels like Certified Humane, American Humane Certified, Certified Angus Beef, Whole Foods or Niman Ranch have made commitments to the principles behind these labels. These companies need established relationships with farmers and ranchers they can trust to raise livestock in a way that is consistent with their brands and their humane labels. But the new proposal would make it easier for farmers and ranchers to sue meat companies that pay premiums to farmers who offer a higher quality animal that was raised in a certain way.
In my view, a farmer with a progressive, humane veal production system deserves a higher price than one offering sick, weak calves -- and no justification should be necessary. Some other examples would be grass-fed beef, certified cattle vaccination programs and specific housing requirements for animals. Producers raising animals to fit specifications should get more money for their animals.
As a scientist who has dedicated her life to improving livestock welfare, I am extremely alarmed that the department ultimately responsible for enforcing the Humane Slaughter Act apparently has paid so little attention to the animal welfare implications of this proposal.
I urge Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to reconsider this rule in order to maintain good animal welfare and to foster development of important niche markets that create many marketing opportunities for producers. This will help animal welfare, rural development and family farms.