law

Does The Law Protect Farmed Animals? 

Cheryl Leahy Animals, Legal Advocacy 2 Comments

I decided to go to law school because I wanted an end to animal exploitation, and I had the idealistic belief that law plays the unique role in our society of legitimizing moral progress. Historically, the role of law in the fight for the expansion of rights for mistreated individuals and groups has been crucial. Once a moral principle is recognized by our legal system, its status is raised in terms of societal acceptance. So, does this work for animals? Particularly, does this work for the animals trapped in the most entrenched, powerful, and moneyed institutions of cruelty and deprivation – animals in the meat, milk and egg industries? 

Here’s why and how we use the law to fight for farmed animals at Animal Outlook.

There are fewer laws protecting farmed animals than you think.

Caring people who first learn about these issues almost invariably begin with the same assumption: the government inspects these factory farms and slaughterhouses and weeds out the abuse, right? In reality, almost no farmed animals are subject to government inspection and cruelty is the standard in animal agriculture. In the U.S. at the federal level, there is no law protecting animals in agriculture from the time they are born or hatched until the time they are shipped off for slaughter.

The federal laws that do apply include the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, a transport law with meager penalties and applies only to “livestock” – defined to exclude birds. Although we have made progress with that law, it is still almost never enforced. There is also the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which applies to federally inspected “livestock” slaughter. But this leaves, for most animals and most of the life cycle, protection only through laws at the state level. 

State animal protection laws do include farmed animals, with some big caveats. 

Every state has an animal cruelty law, and that law does apply to farmed animals. In the vast majority of states, these laws are exclusively criminal, without any private right of action for enforcement: only the relevant government agencies can enforce these laws; and they have nearly unfettered discretion to decide whether or not to pursue a case, regardless of its merits. In most states, there are exemptions for common or normal farming practices, which allows the industry to write its own rules.

Our undercover investigations regularly expose widespread systemic and egregious animal cruelty. It is incumbent upon us to take the industry to task, through the enforcement of these laws. Its business model exists only because of institutionalized animal cruelty. We are able to succeed despite the legal obstacles: our investigation of a Tyson facility led to 24 counts of animal cruelty including the first-ever conviction for an industry standard practice—inserting plastic rods into the nostrils of birds — which Tyson and most of the top poultry companies committed to ending following this.

Some of the best legal routes against institutional cruelty are laws intended to protect people. 

While it’s important to target the widespread cruelty of the industry by maximizing the use of the few animal protective laws we have and limit the coverage of the standard practice exemptions, perhaps our most exciting work are lawsuits we bring using laws never intended to protect animals. The potential options here are limitless. We have found the best success where the harm to the human plaintiffs the law recognizes is closely connected to the harm to the animals, so the human’s injury can act as a stand-in for the animals’ mistreatment.

Examples here include lawsuits claiming false and misleading labeling of animal products, price-fixing done via a massive cow-killing campaign in the dairy industry and a federal False Claims Act case claiming improper sale of lamb meat to the U.S. government produced in violation of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. We continue to file more legal actions of this type all the time, with numerous cases ongoing. I do not see an end in sight to ideas that have real potential for institutional change.

So, does the law protect farmed animals? 

The answer is yes, with the right kind of advocacy. Our legal system has within it the power to advance our society forward for animals. The ingredients for moral advancement for animals are already baked into our laws, both in terms of existing laws and the creation of new law and policy. Animal Outlook’s Legal Advocacy Program continues to make real systemic impact through the law. Our victories against the systemic cruelty of factory farming are heartening, but the most important functions of our legal actions are bigger than any one case alone: we break new ground by using existing laws in creative ways to address the animals’ interests.

We are building replicable models for other innovative advocates and lawyers to build upon and expand. And we are using the law as a tool to advance moral progress. As we tell the stories of the animals using the language and the legitimacy of law, we are dismantling the exploitative system of factory farming piece by piece. 

Your support can help us use the legal system as a tool to fight the systemic injustices of factory farming. Your donation will help our legal team to strategically challenge the status quo of animal agribusiness and to animal abusers accountable.


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Comments 2

  1. Avatar

    When it comes down to human needs and human pleasures versus animal lives and suffering, all the major religions fail. As long as other-than-human animals are given no moral standing and abusing them is not considered a sin and a crime, no matter how many encyclicals the Pope issues talking about the “value” of animals “in the eyes of the Lord”–it is lip service, it is political, it is public relations–they are simply empty abstractions that change nothing in the Church’s teaching.

    “In fact, if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money [or politics] are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.”― Ruth Harrison, “Animal Machines”

    Everyone is for animal “welfare” reforms: But animals are still property, and the property “owners” — whether scientists in a laboratory; agribusiness CEOs on the factory farm; or the management of rodeos, circuses, and zoos — have every right to do what they wish to animal bodies. The legal rationale are two-fold: any act causing animal suffering is acceptable so long as it is part of a “tradition” of animal exploitation and/or has some “rational” purpose such as making profit or “disciplining” an animal. Thus, while the burning or beating of a cat or dog is a felony crime in many states, this is so because it has no redeemable utilitarian function for society, not because it is intrinsically wrong. Where animals are property, the property rights of individual animal “owners” trump public moral concerns, such as voiced by animal advocacy groups, and many a just battle has been lost in the courts through an exploiter’s appeal to “ownership” rights over animals.–from Dr. Steven Best’s essay “Legally Blind: The Case For Granting Animals Rights”

    “Unnecessary,” when referring to animal suffering, is an infinitely elastic term which will stretch to fit human needs. Animals should not be made to suffer unnecessarily. And the law codifies this perspective, which is to say that virtually every jurisdiction in North America has laws that say animals should be treated humanely, animals should not be made to suffer unnecessarily.

    And those laws are useless. They do nothing, and they in no way protect animals from human-caused suffering, in any meaningful way. So, I thought what I would talk about is why that’s the case and why it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with other animals and the emerging field of animal rights law, that is doing just that.

    When we see that laws protect animals from unnecessary suffering, they seem superficially impressive, but it doesn’t take long and you don’t have to be a lawyer to figure out that, if the law prohibits causing unnecessary suffering, it creates a corollary, meaning it permits us to cause necessary suffering. What is necessary suffering? Well, we write the laws, we enforce the laws, we interpret them. It turns out it’s necessary for an animal to suffer whenever we say so. So our laws prohibit gratuitous suffering, the kind that’s caused sheerly by what we might call wicked intent. But as soon as there’s a human purpose, and really almost any purpose will do, that suffering is necessary and protected. And it’s been that way for a really long time. — SOURCE: ‘It’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with animals’ by Lesli Bisgould

    “Palliative Animal Law: The War on Animal Cruelty”

    Animals raised for food make up well over 90% of the domestic animals in this country, and yet the corporations operating slaughterhouses are arguably inoculated from prosecution unless a prosecutor can show beyond a reasonable doubt that the pain and suffering they might cause is not “customary and normal.” Likewise, corporate dairies in the United States that confine up to 36,000 animals per facility for constant cycles of impregnation and milking are shielded from liability, as long as they can attest that their animal management or husbandry practices are customary among their competitors, and perhaps as long as they can find a veterinarian that will endorse the practice.

    More prosecution will never lead to greater animal rights. Longer sentences have not incrementally advanced the standing of animals in society. Like other palliative treatments, the carceral agenda provides pain relief for the humans disturbed by animal violence, but it masks rather than cures the structural violence involved in the ordinary commercial exploitation of animals. As societal concern for animal protection increases,55× one should expect that the public will be hungry for this sort of palliative treatment; instead, I hope that animal lawyers will be up to the task of providing interventions aimed at a cure. https://harvardlawreview.org/2021/03/palliative-animal-law-the-war-on-animal-cruelty/?emci=20a78f92-a298-eb11-85aa-0050f237abef&emdi=040fcd2e-aa98-eb11-85aa-0050f237abef&ceid=1418416

  2. Cheryl Leahy

    Thank you for this thoughtful engagement. I absolutely agree that our biggest challenge with using the law for animals is the law’s misguided characterization of animals as property. The anti-cruelty laws are the exception to this, where the interests of the animals are seen by the law, at least as it’s written. I have always seen the potential in these laws as targeting the systematic and corporate-driven cruelty of factory farming, not about avoiding farmed animals or increasing sentences for workers, and I’m optimistic about limiting the exemptions in the law (and we have had some encouraging firsts here). In my view, it’s not about whether to use the laws we have available to us, but how to do so. I will be writing more on this in the future – please stay tuned.

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