MORRIS: Cut King’s race to the bottom

Annelisa Leinbach_Opinion King Amendment_1030
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Beware citizens of California, Florida, Oregon, Arizona, Ohio, Colorado, Maine, Michigan, Rhode Island and other states that have passed laws to reduce cruelty to farm animals and impose higher food safety standards.

If U.S. Representative Steve King (R-IA)’s amendment to the Farm Bill — which will be debated in the House and Senate Farm Bill Conference Committee beginning today — becomes law, the farm animal welfare and food safety laws you passed, often by huge margins, may be toast.

If enacted, the King Amendment, known as the “Protect Interstate Commerce Act,” would prohibit any state from imposing higher agricultural standards or conditions on foods produced or sold in other states. King argues that commerce is inhibited when standards differ among states. But he disregards one of the bedrock principles of his party: each state’s constitutional right to pass laws to protect its citizens.

The amendment is so vaguely worded that experts say it would repeal decades’ worth of state laws approved by voters regarding the intensive confinement of farm animals, shark finning, puppy mills and horse, dog and cat slaughter for meat. It would also repeal certain state laws protecting the environment, workers’ rights and food safety.

California’s Proposition 2, for example, bans some of the cruelest factory farm practices including the extreme confinement of laying hens, mother pigs and veal calves. These humane laws — that currently impose higher standards on all growers that want to sell their eggs in California — would be nullified if the King Amendment passes.

Likewise, California’s requirement that oysters from the Gulf of Mexico are processed to eliminate deadly bacteria before being sold to California citizens would be nixed. Under the King Amendment, Louisiana’s law that allows the sale of unprocessed oysters would supersede California’s stricter law, and prevent California from safeguarding its citizens.

The King Amendment essentially sets up a “race to the bottom” in terms of farm animal welfare, food safety, farm workers’ rights and environmental laws related to agriculture.

This race to the bottom will surely benefit King’s industrial agriculture contributors, from whose lobbyists King received over $265,000 in 2012. But somebody has to pay the price. And those somebodies are farm animals, farm workers and us (as citizens and as eaters).

The reason states pass agricultural regulations is because they think the federal standards are too low. Thus, the practical result of the King Amendment would be to strip agricultural regulatory power from the states. This consolidation of farm animal protection in federal hands is particularly galling given that farm animals are excluded from the definition of “animals” covered by the federal Animal Welfare Act.

Wayne Pacelle ’87, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, says the King Amendment is “one of the most destructive and far-reaching anti-animal welfare provisions we’ve seen in decades.”

The only people who benefit from the King Amendment are the stockholders of industrial agribusinesses — like Smithfield Inc., which was sold to Chinese investors last month for $4.7 billion dollars — who seek lower animal welfare, health and environmental standards to boost their profits.

The rest of us — people who eat, the farm animals, farm workers, the environment, and the state and local governments that have to pay for the environmental cleanup and health costs that result from lower standards — lose big.

The government shutdown fight is now behind us, but the partisan fights over the behemoth five-year farm bill are heating up again. There is a lot at stake, and compromises will have to be made to get the bill passed.

But lawmakers should not compromise on unnecessary cruelty. The noxious King Amendment needs to go.

We can do better as a society and as a nation than to embark on a farm animal welfare and food safety race to the bottom.

Viveca Morris is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at viveca.morris@yale.edu.

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