Why Not Change the Laws?
People often complain that what Vegan Outreach does is too slow. It is, of course, natural to want to pass laws protecting all farmed animals or banning all factory farms; going vegetarian and doing person-to-person outreach seems far too slow.
Nearly every vegan has felt this way at some point. This reaction has led people to donate millions of dollars and work countless hours to try to have a bigger, faster impact – to “save them all.”
Ability to Have an Impact
Having been involved in all forms of animal advocacy for more than 15 years, we believe that, at this point in the United States, very few compassionate individuals or organizations are in a position to affect farmed animals at any level of legislation. Modern animal agriculture is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and the U.S. government runs on money. When laws actually are passed, they are usually inadequate and aren't enforced.
Several examples demonstrate these problems. The federal humane transport law says that animals must be allowed to rest, move about, and have access to food and water for five hours during every 28 hour period. But this law doesn't apply to transport by trucks, which is how almost all animals are moved from factory farm or feedlot to slaughter (see this for more information on transport). And there is no federal law that protects any farm animals from abuse while on the farm.
The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act doesn’t apply to birds, which represent the majority of animals slaughtered in the United States. Even for mammals, slaughter is often far from “humane,” as few inspectors exist, and abuse is rampant (see, for example, this story from the Washington Post).
At the state level, most humane laws exempt “standard agricultural practices,” leaving the treatment of “food” animals outside the law. Even small victories are few and far between. Perhaps the main recent legislative victory for farm animals in the United States was a Florida ballot initiative that banned the practice of housing pregnant pigs in small crates. The initiative cost animal protection groups millions of dollars and affected only two farms – one of which moved to North Carolina. This illustrates another problem with legislative campaigns – laws may have no effect on animal welfare if producers move to other states or nations where the laws do not apply.
In terms of legislation, there is one potentially hopeful spot on the horizon. An Arizona Ballot Measure to ban crates for pigs and calves would be a significant step forward. Activists working for this face an uphill battle to get enough signatures, and the measure would not directly affect many animals (Arizona is not a big farm state), but it would be a victory to get it on the ballot, as it would allow groups to run graphic, educational T.V. commercials. If it passes, it could set the stage for a new wave of real change at the state level – although each effort would be an uphill battle, and each would take years of work.
Campaigns targeting companies, rather than legislation, have had more success. PETA has succeeded in forcing McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s to agree to buy meat from producers that follow certain animal welfare guidelines (see, for instance, the McCruelty campaign). It’s not clear, though, how well these guidelines are enforced. For example, Gail Eisnitz, author of Slaughterhouse, reported that inspections of slaughterhouses supplying McDonald’s are often staged, and rarely catch even the most overt cruelty (see this statement).
In 2005, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) launched a campaign against retailers selling battery caged eggs, and they have been successful in a short amount of time. By affecting retail policy, animal welfare is improved even if producers change location or if domestic products are replaced by imported ones. As significant as the PETA and HSUS victories have been, though, many activists believe their individual efforts and donations should go towards changes more significant than getting egg-laying hens out of cages while remaining factory farmed.
Perhaps the most important factor to consider when dealing with welfare reforms is that the government and big business will manipulate public perception through misleading claims. See this expose on the “Animal Care Certified” label which was given to eggs coming from the extremely inhumane conditions; see also this for how the term “free range” can mean just about anything.
Efficiency and Impact at the Margin
Given the high costs, low payoffs, failure of implementation and enforcement, and manipulation of public opinion, investments in legislative campaigns generally offer little to no bang for the buck, especially at the individual level. Company-centered campaigns require the focus of very large, multi-million-dollar organizations, where, again, the impact at the margin of an individual’s efforts or donation is small.
For all these reasons, Vegan Outreach believes the resources and efforts of most activists are better spent directly informing the public about factory farms and slaughterhouses. For example, in just an hour or two, you can distribute several hundred booklets to interested young people. Even if only a few people go vegetarian from reading these booklets, these few hours can save thousands of animals. Each hour volunteered and dollar donated to Vegan Outreach has a real impact on the lives of animals. At the same time, leafleting educates consumers and voters, increasing the support for future ballot initiatives and market reforms.
If there is to be any significant change – either through legislation or demand-driven reforms – there will need to be much more widespread awareness among consumers and voters. The more people we can reach with detailed information, the more compassionate people will choose cruelty-free options, and speak on behalf of the animals who suffer so terribly, unseen and unheard, in today’s factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses.
Although we wish there were a faster way, we believe that at this time, creating more awareness, and persuading more people to become vegetarian and vegan, will do the most good for animals in the long run.
From a previous article by Gail Eisnitz:
Meat packers are notorious for staging inspections. During unscheduled visits, industry auditors are required to announce their presence at the plant’s guard shack before they enter the operation. Supervisors then use radios, code words, and whistle signals to alert employees to incoming visitors. In any case, by the time the “surprise” visitors have signed in, met with plant officials, donned hard hats, white smocks, and rubber boots, a good half-hour has elapsed.
One USDA veterinarian confided that the only way he was able to get a true picture of what was taking place at his plant was to lie down in the bed of a pick-up truck with a blanket over him and be driven past the plant's guard shack. He then entered the kill floor wearing employee garb.
Recently, the Humane Farming Association obtained massive evidence documenting that, for years, the nation’s largest meat producer and major fast-food supplier had been skinning and dismembering conscious cattle. Nearly two-dozen plant workers signed affidavits stating that they were being required to skin and chop the legs off of many thousands of live, conscious animals. Videotape shot at the plant depicted fully conscious cattle cut open and dangling from the bleed rail. Law enforcement authorities concluded that criminal activity had occurred.
Auditors for McDonald’s visited the plant during the height of the abuses. Despite the atrocities taking place, they gave the plant a passing grade.
—Personal Communication, January 24, 2006