Natural Law? The Law and Factory Farming in the United States

By Taylor “Nikki” Nicolas, YULR Online Article

In the United States, the vast majority of animal meat sold for human consumption is produced by a system of factory farming–a comparative switch from the traditional American family farm model. The goal of a factory farm is to produce the largest quantity of meat, and animal products, at the lowest expense. These “farms”, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), are notorious for their filth, questionable practices, extraordinary environmental implications, and mistreatment–if not outright abuse–of animals. The suffering of these animals has been continually and thoroughly documented by organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and The Humane Society of the United States. These animal rights organizations are often cast as idealists at best, and militant extremists at worst; many Americans decline to browse PETA pamphlets or view short film exposes of the horrors of the modern meat production and processing industries. What, if any, protections do the laws of the United States afford these mistreated animals?

Three federal statutes address animal welfare: (1) The U.S. Animal Welfare Act (AWA), (2) Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and (3) Twenty-Eight Hour Law of 1877.  However, none of these Acts regulate the treatment of animals raised for food.[1] Thus, the individual states are responsible of legislating on the matter.

Every state in America has some semblance of anti-cruelty legislation. In twenty-five states, all farming practices deemed “customary” are exempt from the statute’s reach.[2] A practice is “customary” if several corporations in a given area mutually recognize the practice and carry it out with some regularity and consistency. Though many of these practices are customary they are not humane; in fact, said practices are notorious for their horrific conditions and the suffering they impose upon animals. Because of these exemptions, despite the existence of anti-cruelty legislation, animals remain for the most part unprotected.

In many instances, a corporation in the lucrative business of factory farming will find it more cost efficient to pay a fine for an infraction–usually a drop in the bucket compared to their annual revenue–and continue the practice in question because of its cost saving potential. Factory-farming operations cut corners instead of caring for the living beings they own, resulting in meats that are harmful to animals and food products that have dubious human health benefits.

The Humane Slaughter Act concerns the events during and immediately preceding the killing of an animal and does not provide any meaningful protection to animals at any other point of their life. Practically speaking, the provisions of the law are near-impossible to enforce due to the sheer volume of animals killed in the U.S.–on average, 90,000 cows are slaughtered daily.[3] Furthermore, the law does not apply to birds–whom account for over 90% of animals raised and killed for food–rabbits, and fish.[4]

In addition to appalling farm conditions, and often inhumane, prolonged slaughters, animals raised for consumption also face long journeys to slaughterhouses in similarly painful conditions–many animals die in transit from starvation, dehydration, stress, exposure to extreme temperatures, and confinement.[5] Originally instated in 1877, but repealed, reenacted, and amended in 1994, The Twenty-Eight Hour Law regulates the transport of animals raised for food.[6] The law states that an animal cannot be confined or constrained for more than twenty-eight conservative hours without being unloaded and provided with food, water, and rest. On the surface, the law may appear to protect animals, but in reality the law is riddled with loopholes and ambiguities: in some cases sheep can be held for an additional eight hours, the rules do not apply to transport within a state’s borders, trucks may be exempt depending on the interpretation of the statute, and, worst of all, the maximum penalty enforceable is $500.[7] Moreover, there is no inspection infrastructure in place. The onus falls upon the attorney general to investigate a practice, and to take further action. A private citizen lacks legal standing to bring a case for transportation violation since the animals are technically private property. Notably, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) claims that the law does not apply to birds–a claim that has huge implications given the extraordinary volume at which Americans consume chicken meat.[8] Though not discussed at length here, it must be acknowledged that fish and other aquatic creatures are also victims of the vicious factory farming cycle. In legal and social contexts, “animal” is a title that exclusively refers to warm-blooded mammals, while the animal kingdom encompasses a much more diverse group of species. This is a relevant distinction given the increasing prevalence of aquaculture.

Particularly troubling are the number of laws restricting freedom of speech that would expose the conditions in CAFOs cropping up across America, especially in agribusiness-heavy states. These laws will only further obscure the little transparency left in this troubled industry.[9] Animal rights and welfare issues aside, the environmental implications of continuing factory farming are astounding–whether or not we will see legislation relevant to this aspect of CAFOs remains to be seen. Given that few issues have such impact on our health, our children, our earth, and our future, one can only hope that the matter will garner national attention, and, ultimately, reform.

Taylor “Nikki” Nicolas is a sophomore in Branford College and a YULR Online Assistant Editor.


[1] Paige M. Tomaselli, “International Comparative Animal Cruelty Laws,” Michigan State University College of Law Review (2003): accessed August 4, 2012. <http://www.animallaw.info/articles/ddusicacl.htm#top>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Did you know…” Fact sheet. Accessed August 11, 2012. < http://aldf.org/article.php?id=1027>

[5] Paige M. Tomaselli, “International Comparative Animal Cruelty Laws,” Michigan State University College of Law Review (2003): accessed August 4, 2012. <http://www.animallaw.info/articles/ddusicacl.htm#top>

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Animal Legal Defense Fund. “Did you know…” Fact sheet. Accessed August 11, 2012. < http://aldf.org/article.php?id=1027>

[9] Cody Carlson, “The Ag Gag Laws: Hiding Factory Farm Abuses From Public Scrutiny.” The Atlantic, March 20, 2012. Accessed August 9, 2012. < http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/the-ag-gag-laws-hiding-factory-farm-abuses-from-public-scrutiny/254674/>

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