Legislature should pass ban on veal crates

Farm bureau’s bill on animal treatment would be ineffective

This is a tale of two bills. The first one (H458/ S786) would ban the use of veal crates and gestation crates in Massachusetts. This is a modest step and would have virtually no adverse economic effect on Massachusetts farmers since, as of now, Massachusetts is mercifully free of these practices.  Similar measures have already been adopted in eight other states, including some in which agribusiness has a far larger footprint than it does in Massachusetts.

The merits of the bill are self evident. The very names of these devices suggest the commoditization of farm animals which is characteristic of modern factory farming. Veal crates don’t store veal; they store calves, very young calves. For their entire brief lives they are confined to a stall so small they cannot turn around, much less walk.

Similarly, gestation crates confine pregnant pigs, an animal generally accepted to be more intelligent than a dog, to a cruelly small (2 by 7 foot) area in which they cannot turn around or take more than one step. As much as four years of their abbreviated five-year lives are spent in this way.

Over 60 legislators co-sponsored the first bill, and at the hearing on it before the Judiciary Committee it enjoyed conspicuous support from a broad spectrum of constituents from all walks of life. Organizations supporting the first bill include the Humane Society, the MSPCA, and the Animal Rescue League – mainstream organizations all.

Opposition at the hearing was sparse, coming primarily from representatives of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, a trade association of Massachusetts farmers. The Massachusetts Farm Bureau is associated with the American Farm Bureau Federation, which the Massachusetts group proudly describes as “the world’s largest agricultural advocacy organization.” 

Which brings us to the second bill (S. 2047), the Massachusetts Farm Bureau’s purported alternative to the first bill. It’s entitled, appealingly, “An Act to promote the care and wellbeing of livestock.”  It would create an advisory board to the Department of Agricultural Resources to recommend “regulations and/or voluntary standards” with respect to the “care and well-being” of livestock. On its face it sounds benign, but scratching the surface just a bit reveals quite another agenda.  

That other agenda is what Farm Bureaus throughout the country are all about: the promotion of the welfare of their constituents, the agricultural community. Any notion that promotion of the care and wellbeing of livestock is even part of the mix is effectively rebutted by the president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau himself, A. Richard Bonanno, who was recently quoted professing not to know “how a calf feels about [veal crates]” and suggesting their use is comparable to the use of car seats for children.   

The actual purpose of the second bill is simply to head off the first bill or, as the Massachusetts Farm Bureau says in its materials, to counteract “Washington-based special interest groups [which] are active in Massachusetts trying to push their agenda through legislation and PR.”  

The supposition that a livestock board, which would include only two representatives of animal welfare organizations (both of which are opposed to the bill), would recommend a ban on veal crates and gestation crates, as the first bill would mandate, is at best wishful thinking and at worst a fantasy. In Kentucky, which adopted a livestock board bill, the board sanctioned the use of both.   

Meet the Author
At the hearing on the second bill before the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee, the opposition far outnumbered the three people who showed up to support it. Yet the committee nevertheless reported out the farm bureau’s bill favorably while the first bill with 60 cosponsors and the backing of the Humane Society, the MSPCA, and the Animal Rescue League remains in the Judiciary Committee.

When Massachusetts was just a colony in 1641, it enacted the first law in the country prohibiting animal cruelty. The state has a long and proud history of safeguarding animals against cruelty and abuse. The hearings on these competing bills demonstrate which one has popular support. If the second bill nonetheless carries the day, it will be a sad day for Massachusetts and a shameful one for the Legislature.

Virginia F. Coleman is a lawyer living in Cambridge.