Missouri ponders protections for animal agriculture

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April 15, 2012 - 7:00pm

Hog farmers are under a lot of scrutiny these days. Animal rights advocates say that the pork production system may be efficient, but it is also cruel and inhumane.

That viewpoint is gaining traction with consumers, which scares some farmers. They worry that animal rights groups will parlay moral qualms with certain hog farming techniques into laws banning them.

Jessica Naudziunas, Harvest Public Media

Rick Bax, an independent hog broker in Osage County, Mo., is wary of special interest groups' involvements in agriculture policy.

"We just don't need special interest groups trying to put their...I don't want say city ways,' but different ways on this rural area," said Rick Bax, an independent hog broker who runs the Central Hog Market in Osage County, Mo.

But that's exactly what's happening as more consumers take an interest in how their food is produced, even if they've never been in a hog barn or raised an animal.

In response, Missouri is considering legislation that essentially would lock in the legality of current methods. The Right to Raise Animals bill has failed three times, but it passed the Missouri House in March and is being considered by the state Senate. The bill reads in part: "It shall be the right of persons to raise livestock, in a manner adhering to state and local laws and ordinances as enacted on Aug. 28, 2012, or at the commencement of operations, whichever is later."

"I always knew that there was a rub between the urban areas and the rural areas. I did not realize how many people didn't understand where their food came from, and didn't understand that you have to kill an animal to get what you are going to eat,'" said Rep. Tom Loehner, the bill's sponsor.

He said farmers have spent lots of money building businesses with techniques now under attack.

"It's going to cost them hundreds of thousands of millions of dollars to do that, and change their whole operation," Loehner said. "And when they're out, they're out!"

But for animal rights activists, a farmer's financial loss doesn't mean much. It's a moral issue.

Animal rights activist Temple Grandin has compared farming methods, such as confining a pregnant pig to a crate, like living your life sitting in a coach-class airline seat. Farmer and author Nicolette Hahn Niman says if Sweden and the United Kingdom can ban crates, then it shouldn't be an issue for the United States.

"If it violates the basic fundamental values that we have, just our gut instinct tells us, this is wrong then it is wrong," said Niman, whose husband founded Niman Ranch, one of the original suppliers of pork to restaurant chain Chipotle. Niman works with farmers who raise animals outdoors and crate-free.

"When you consider the overall welfare of the animals involved, it is a small price to pay for all of those many hours of suffering that are avoided by allowing them to be out of the crates," she said.

While lawmakers in Missouri attempt to protect farmers, consumers have already shaped changes in the market. This year, big time fast-food companies are rethinking the type of meat they put in their burritos or between hamburger buns. McDonalds Corp., Hormel and the largest producer of pork in the country, Smithfield, have vowed to stop buying pork from farmers who raise hogs in crates.

Farmers would be wise to pay attention to consumer concerns, said Carl Esbeck, a professor of law at the University of Missouri Columbia. If you have a good product and you meet some consumer demands, you'll likely succeed, he said.

Esbeck cited multinational companies Apple and Nike, which have been subject to consumer worries over products made with cheap labor abroad. People still buy iPhones and running shoes, despite their moral dilemma, he said.

"There's an example where two, very successful American industries have entered into the marketplace, made accommodations, made adjustments, but nonetheless are able to manufacture cheaply and compete," he said. "I would think agribusiness in Missouri could do the same, and they don't need this law which would codify for them a right of the status quo."




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