Campaign '06: Treating Pigs Better in Arizona

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Do Arizonans care about pigs and calves? The answer is, most likely, a resounding yes.

In Tuesday's election, Ballot Proposition 240, "The Humane Treatment of Farm Animals Act," is expected to pass by a wide margin in this generally conservative state after a contentious and emotional campaign. No matter that the measure, which forbids the confinement of calves and pregnant sows in narrow crates, affects only a single industrial farm in a state that raises little pork and no commercial veal. But agribusiness and animal welfare advocates agree that a victory in Arizona will invigorate the growing national movement to reform factory farms. "If it works in Arizona, then we'll go on to California and other states," says Princeton professor Peter Singer, a renowned animal welfare activist.

Arizona is not the first state to address the issue. Florida approved a ballot initiative in 2002—despite jokes about the constitutional "Hamendment"—which forbids the confinement of pregnant pigs. And New Jersey, after passing the nation's first law requiring humane standards for all farm animals, is battling a lawsuit seeking to outlaw sow crates as well as the confinement of veal calves and the force-molting of hens through two-week starvation—a practice which increases egg production. Meanwhile, more than 100 college cafeterias nationwide, under pressure from students, have switched to so-called "cage-free" eggs from chickens that are allowed to roam in sheds, rather than lay in crowded metal cages. And more consumers across the country are buying meat labeled as coming from humanely raised animals.

Although Americans eat more chicken and beef than pork, activists are focusing on ballot initiatives on pigs in part because they are known as intelligent animals. Also, making pregnant sows more comfortable would have less effect on the price of meat than would reforms of chicken- and beef-raising practices. According to Michael Markarian of the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States, the common farm practice of confining sows in 2-ft. by 7-ft. metal pens where they cannot turn around for most of their four to five year breeding life is "especially egregious." Arizona's major newspapers have endorsed Prop 204. And the message was reinforced in a television commercial featuring Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio cooking a pork chop while declaring that, nonetheless, "I believe that animals raised for food deserve humane treatment."

The nation's major pig-producing states are North Carolina, Iowa and Nebraska. Arizona has only one industrial pork operation, Pigs for Farmer John, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp., which ships a quarter-million animals to slaughter each year and houses, on any given day, about 13,500 pregnant sows. The gestation crates, according to a spokesman for Pigs for Farmer John, keep the sows safe from other pigs and allow individual feeding and care. Prop 204 opponents, led by Jim Klinker of the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, have erected billboards around the state dissing the initiative as "hogwash." Outside activists, Klinker contends, have "a mission... to end meat production, and, ultimately force their vegan agenda down the throats of American consumers."

Not so, says Singer, noting that the European Union has banned narrow crates for sows and veal calves. "A lot of people who eat meat would like to feel that the animals had a good life before they were killed." Once the Arizona initiative passes, he adds, "then the movement will roll on." The eventual goal of animal activists? Federal legislation banning cruelty to farm animals. Already, a bill has been introduced in Congress requiring that producers who sell food to the federal government must meet a basic set of humane standards, such as adequate space, adequate food, and adequate veterinary care.