Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, recently took a break from his long-running battles with livestock producers to set up a new branch of the Humane Society in India, an occasion that included the presence of the Dalai Lama.
But having Pacelle on the other side of the world — about as far away from Capitol Hill as possible — still gives the U.S. farm lobby reason for heartburn. Beyond India, Pacelle has his eyes on establishing similar organizations in other countries that are major agricultural producers and markets for U.S. exports, including Brazil and Russia.
That puts the beef, pork and poultry industries squarely in the cross hairs of consumers around the world concerned about the treatment of animals bred and raised for food.
“They are going to these other countries to also add that international pressure on producers in the U.S.,” said Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a livestock industry group.
“It’s the same tactic, just a difference audience that they’re trying to approach,” she said.
Under Pacelle’s leadership, the Humane Society has used a powerful combination of ballot initiatives, social media, undercover videotaping and corporate arm-twisting to force some of the biggest players in the meat industry to end farming practices the producers maintain are sound and ethical.
The pork industry was essentially forced to phase out the use of tight-fitting stalls to confine sows after McDonald’s and Safeway announced plans to phase out purchases of pork produced in those stalls.
Meanwhile, the egg industry is asking Congress to do what would be unthinkable for many industries: impose the very regulations sought by its critics.
The United Egg Producers, stung by the Humane Society’s ability to pass state laws regulating livestock housing — including a 2008 ballot measure in California — reached a deal with the society to set national standards for cages that will force farms to end the use of the small “battery cages” that have long been the industry standard. Animal rights supporters say larger “enriched” cages, which would be mandatory under the proposed national standards, give hens space to perch, nest and move around.
Pacelle has been able to convince the egg industry that things could get worse if it doesn’t get behind the new regulations.
According to the United Egg Producers, a proliferation of state standards is creating chaos for producers, who often ship throughout the country. The Humane Society agreed to stop pursuing additional state measures as part of the deal with the egg producers. But, if federal standards are not enacted, the deal is off. Then, as happened with pork producers, pressure is likely to increase on the egg industry from retailers and restaurants.
“If this agreement in Congress is not codified, you will likely see efforts in the food retail sector that mirror those on the pork issue,” Pacelle said. “We would be forced to resume that effort.”
Cattle and hog producers fear hen standards would set a precedent for regulating their industries, too. Federal law is largely silent on how livestock is treated, except for regulations requiring that hogs and cattle be slaughtered humanely, and those industries are fighting the egg producers over standards for hen housing.
Egg producers must still get Congress to write the standards into law, and so far they’ve had little success. The effort is likely to resume next year, assuming Congress doesn’t pass a farm bill in the lame-duck session.
Democratic leaders wouldn’t allow the standards to be proposed as an amendment to the Senate-passed farm bill (S 3240). Egg producers then pinned their hopes on getting the standards debated on the House floor as an amendment to the House Agriculture Committee’s farm bill (HR 6083), but that measure won’t be brought to the floor now.
House and Senate Agriculture committee leaders now are trying to write a compromise bill behind closed doors that could be passed as part of an agreement to avert the fiscal cliff. In the event that happens, there is unlikely to be any chance to add the egg standards, a prospect that would be just fine with other livestock sectors.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, sees the standards as giving in to the Humane Society even though egg producers in Iowa want them: “It comes down to, ‘Do we want the animal rights activists telling the food producers how to produce food?’”
The egg industry remains unbowed.
“Whether it’s now — during the lame duck — or whether it is next year due to an extension of the farm bill, we’re absolutely, 100 percent committed to getting the egg bill passed,” said Chad Gregory of the United Egg Producers.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., have introduced bills (S 3239, HR 3798) that would amend federal poultry law with the provisions of the agreement reached between the egg producers and the Humane Society. No action has been taken on either bill, although Senate Agriculture did have a hearing on Feinstein’s bill in July.
“This legislation protects restaurants, bakers, food processors and American consumers from unnecessarily high egg prices. It protects egg producers from having eggs they can’t sell,” Feinstein said in a floor speech in May. “This legislation is a reasonable, widely supported solution to a real, costly and growing problem.”
Meanwhile, Pacelle, as the India trip shows, sees no end to his group’s influence. Pacelle took over the Humane Society of the United States in 2004, ramped up its fundraising and gave the animal rights movement a moderate face that had been lacking under the leadership of groups such as PETA that relied on the campy and outrageous to gain attention.
He is particularly interested in expanding to countries where sufficient money can be raised to support operations. India is one of those. “I do believe that every country should have a group,” he said.