Big Meat's Big Day

In Ohio, the humane-farming debate is about to be uncaged.

| Sun Nov. 1, 2009 8:21 PM EST

Update: Issue 2 passed on Tuesday. The unofficial tally was 64 percent in favor, 36 percent opposed.

Ohio voters will hit the polls Tuesday to decide the fate of an agribusiness-backed proposal that would amend the state constitution and create a board of political appointees to act as arbiters of what constitutes proper treatment of farm animals. In the eyes of its critics, the heavily favored measure, called Issue 2, represents the meat industry's preemptive strike against a fledgling nationwide movement toward humane food production.

Big Meat means big money in Ohio, the nation's second-largest producer of eggs (Iowa is No. 1) and a major player in pork and veal. The muscle behind Issue 2 is the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, whose political action committee has raised $4 million to promote the measure. Its sleek online campaign implies that the proposed Livestock Care Standards Board will ensure that animals are reasonably content and that consumers will get safer meat. The Ohio Poultry Association, Ohio Pork Producers Council, and industrial meat and egg interests in such far-flung states as Georgia, North Carolina, and Minnesota have lined up behind the proposed amendment. "We're very encouraged by how things are going so far," says Keith Stimpert, senior VP of public policy for the Farm Bureau.

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Local groups representing small farmers think Issue 2 stinks, however. So do many animal-welfare groups and conservative groups that favor small government. In July, after state lawmakers passed legislation to put it on the ballot, these odd bedfellows formed a coalition called Ohio Against Constitutional Takeover to oppose the measure. "It just goes to show how broad-based the opposition is," says Ohio ACT spokeswoman Natalie Kee. But opponents have raised only $100,000, and that from a single donor. "People are at a loss as to what to do against this very well-funded machine," explains Carol Goland, executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. "It went through lightning-fast, and we didn't have much warning."

Paul Shapiro, who runs the factory farming campaign for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), has helped put livestock guidelines in place in seven states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, and Oregon. "In red states, blue states, and swing states people agree on these common-sense reforms," he says. "All the legislation says is that caged and crated farm animals must be able to stand up, lie down, turn around, and spread their limbs."

Under Issue 2, the livestock standards board's 13 members—10 of whom would be appointed by Gov. Ted Strickland, a friend of Big Ag—will create guidelines for animal care and confinement for the state department of agriculture to enforce. But it does not contain language regarding the well being of the livestock; to enact future HSUS-style reforms, voters would have to go back and amend the amendment. And that's really the point, activists say: Big Meat doesn't want Ohio to go the Humane Society route, so it's setting up roadblocks.

Not so, counters the Farm Bureau's Stimpert. The amendment, he says, gives citizens the opportunity to nominate candidates for the board, and there will be many forums for public discussion. There's been a lack of trust between farmers and consumers due to people getting "farther and farther away from the farm," Stimpert says.

Shapiro, sounding weary, tells me he's now gearing up for battle—a California-size one if it comes to that; last year California voters gave farmers six years to phase out veal crates, tiny gestational cages for pregnant pigs, and so-called battery cages for egg-laying hens, but not before each side had expended $10 million. His organization was prepared to work with Ohio's meat producers, Shapiro says: "In February, I gave a speech in Ohio. I said we'd had a hostile relationship [with opponents] in California and that HSUS didn't want that here. I said we want to find common ground."

It didn't work out. Weeks went by, Shapiro's calls to industrial farm interests weren't returned, he says, and then Issue 2 popped out of the legislature. "Ohio's reaction has been provocative. They have provoked us into running our own ballot campaign." Stimpert offers another perspective. "HSUS visited us and said they wanted to see some change," he says. "We had a very worthwhile discussion, I thought. We listened to them, and then afterward we got together and said, 'What would be the best solution to this problem?' And we came up with the Livestock Care Standards Board. I think it's a really good idea. And I do think we have to credit HSUS for giving us the impetus to think of it."

The meat producers' media campaign, however, appears to be aimed directly at the Humane Society's efforts. "Out-of-state activist groups have signaled they would like to bring an initiative to Ohio that would set rigid, inflexible and impractical rules for how livestock and poultry are housed," warns SafeLocalOhioFood.com, a website operated by the industry's PAC. "This would lead to higher costs for consumers, put food safety at risk, increase the amount of food imported to Ohio, cause thousands of farmers to go out of business, and endanger the overall health and well-being of Ohio's flocks and herds."

Ohio ACT spokeswoman Kee, who hails from a rural part of the state, says some of her farm friends were initially confused about the measure: "They've been told that outside interest groups want to come in and take over farming and make everyone vegan," she says. "Safe and local Ohio food? Who can be against that? It's not until you do a little investigating that you find out it's not quite true."

The Humane Society's agenda is in fact relatively narrow, Shapiro points out, since most farm animals are not confined in tight boxes or cages—only sows, veal calves, and egg layers. "These animals live their entire lives in extreme confinement. They are immobilized in crates only large enough for their bodies—that's all we're talking about. But to hear our opponents, it's like they fear the apocalypse."