If the stars wind up in proper alignment during the last few days of the current legislative session, Kentucky lawmakers are set to create the Kentucky Livestock Care Standards Board. The Board will recommend, but not mandate, standards for the care of horses, other livestock, and poultry on farms across the state. The Board will have no investigative function or actual authority, and the ultimate decision about whether Board recommendations are adopted will be left to the state Department of Agriculture. Opponents, although they are few, argue that this is what the Department of Agriculture should be doing already.
SB 105 has received strong bipartisan support so far, with unanimous passage in the state Senate and near-unanimity in the Kentucky House. All that remains is final Senate approval of changes in the legislation made during passage in the House. Creation of a Livestock Care Standards Board also has garnered endorsements from a wide variety of industry organizations, including some horse-oriented groups.
Similar legislation has passed or is pending in Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, Utah, and Vermont, and West Virginia.
With all this support, a state agency to recommend uniform livestock care standards must be a good thing. Or is it? The issue is not as clear-cut as it might appear. In Kentucky, at least, there is an agenda beyond the obvious one.
California, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and Maine are among states that in recent years have adopted stringent rules limiting some generally accepted livestock management practices. Often initiated by national or state humane organizations, those regulations include restrictions on the types of confinement for animals on poultry, swine, and veal operations. In response, livestock producers argue that strict regulation might cut into profitability for farmers and raise food costs for consumers. The producers urge passage of legislation setting state care standards that presumably are more economically favorable.
In press reports, Kentucky Sen. David Givens was candid in explaining the purpose of SB 105: the goal, he said, is "to protect our livestock industry from the extremes on both ends." The legislation would do this by pre-empting local governments from adopting animal care standards offering more protection for livestock than the statewide regulations. In other words, regulations recommended by the Board and adopted by the Department of Agriculture would be a ceiling which local governments cannot exceed. The idea here is to foreclose the possibility that animal rights organizations—the "extremes" at one end of the continuum—might gain a foothold at the local level.
There is a lot to be said for uniform standards of livestock care across a state, if those standards are based "not on emotion, but on scientific research and widely accepted practices." That is how Kentucky Secretary of Agriculture Richie Farmer described SB 105, and it is a great idea. It is not at all clear, however, whether such standards can be promulgated by an advisory board that is noticeably weak on representatives from the veterinary profession and stacked with producers who have a vested financial interest in the industry they are being asked to regulate.
With the possible exception of golf, where players routinely call penalties on themselves, even in major championships, self-regulation of any activity is problematic. What will the Board recommend for example, if a "widely accepted practice" also happens to be inhumane to animals and a more humane approach results in less profit?
It is wise to keep in mind that an abusive animal management practice does not gain respectability simply because everyone does it. The "soring" issue still clouds the Tennessee Walking Horse industry, largely because self-regulation was an abject failure.
And remember that being an extremist does not always mean you are wrong.