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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Power to the People

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the investigation into the torture of crippled cows and the largest recall of beef in U.S. history, it’s that the agribusiness industry can’t be trusted to regulate itself.  Left to its own devices without proper government inspections and enforcement of laws and regulations related to animals and the environment, some in the sector will not exhibit self-restraint, but instead will stoop to any low just to squeeze out a few extra pennies of profit.

Battery_cage That’s why it’s especially appalling that Arizona lawmakers are now making a move to give more power to the agribusiness lobby, and to strip decisions away from people in local communities. Yesterday the state Senate’s Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee voted 5 to 2 in favor of S.B. 1373, which would create an industry-stacked Arizona Poultry Husbandry Council with authority over poultry practices—such as the confinement of egg-laying hens in cages so small they can’t even turn around or stretch their wings—and would prevent cities, towns, and counties from enacting any animal welfare measures for these birds.

It’s exactly the inverse of good public policy, at a time when lawmakers should tighten the safeguards for food safety and animal welfare, not give away the literal and proverbial keys to the henhouse. It’s a cynical and underhanded power grab by livestock lobbyists and their allies in the legislature.

The good news is that Arizona voters are fiercely independent, and don’t roll over quietly when asked to transfer their rights to industries. The new proposal is similar to a bill defeated in 2006—after being introduced by the same senator—which would have stripped the legislature and voters of their authority to enact common sense laws preventing cruelty to farm animals. At the time, the Arizona Republic called it “a rude legislative noise that is offensive to every Arizonan.” The Arizona Daily Star noted that the bill was “especially arrogant.”

Fence2 The trophy hunting lobby tried to pull the same thing back in 2000, and placed a measure on the statewide ballot seeking to restrict the rights of Arizona citizens to vote on any future proposal related to wildlife protection.  Proposition 102 was disguised as a wildlife conservation measure, but would have provided lasting insulation for canned hunts, steel-jawed leghold traps, and other abusive practices. Arizonans saw through the malarkey, and shot it down by a vote of 38 to 62 percent.

These industry power grabs have played out in Congress, too. Last year, an early draft of the Farm Bill included language that could have stricken numerous state and local laws—ranging from prohibitions against horse slaughter to bans on the cruel treatment of farm animals. Section 123 was so broad that it could have been used to threaten animal welfare laws that do not even relate to food production, such as restricting abusive puppy mills and the ownership of dangerous exotic pets. Thankfully, the House Agriculture Committee removed this dangerous and far-reaching provision from the Farm Bill.

Let’s hope that Arizona lawmakers exhibit the same wisdom when it comes to the rights of local communities to make decisions on food safety and animal welfare. If you live in Arizona, tell your legislators to slaughter this terrible and backwards idea.

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