Home Columns Legal protections for animals are woefully inadequte

Photo:  Pigs at the Pigs Peace Sanctuary in Stanwood, WA.   One of the few places where pigs are treated humanely. 

Of all of the industries that use animals, the food industry is by far the largest. It is estimated that 10 billion animals are raised for food in the United States every year. Despite accounting for such a large percentage of animals used commercially, there are very few laws protecting them during any stage of their lives.

Federal Laws

The most important federal animal protection law is the Animal Welfare Act. The AWA and the regulations promulgated by the United States Department of Agriculture to enforce it provide minimal humane standards for some animals used in experimentation and entertainment. Animals raised for food have no protection whatsoever under the AWA. Instead, federal law provides marginal piecemeal protections under other woefully inadequate statutes.

A farmed animal’s life is cordoned into three phases under federal law: life on the farm; transport; and slaughter. Federal laws protecting their welfare range from non-existent to minimal.

Life on the Farm

During an animal’s life on the farm, from birth or hatching to maturity, federal law does nothing to protect them. This means that neither routine but painful practices, such as castration, intensive confinement, and mutilation, nor intentional acts of cruelty are illegal under federal law.


Some animals receive some protection when they are transported from the farms where they are raised to the abattoir where they are slaughtered. The Twenty-Eight Hour Law, 49 United States Code 80502, says that, if livestock animals are transported by rail for more than twenty-eight consecutive hours, they must be unloaded for food, water, and rest for five hours. Although this law protects animals transported by rail, the vast majority of animals raised for food in the United States are transported by truck. The law does not apply to birds such as chickens or turkeys. The law also contains no provisions dictating the conditions during transport, such as temperature, access to food or water, packing density, or cleanliness. It therefore only provides the most trifling protection to an infinitesimal percentage of animals raised for food in the United States.


The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, 7 United States Code 1901-1907, requires that animals be rendered insensible to pain prior to slaughter. This is generally achieved by shooting a captive bolt through the animal’s brain prior to hoisting him or her on an assembly line, slitting his or her throat, and dismembering his or her body. The statute does not specifically exclude any animals from its purview, but the United States Department of Agriculture, which has the authority to interpret the law, has declared birds exempt. The Humane Society of the United filed a lawsuit, Levine v. Johanns to challenge the USDA’s interpretation, but was found not to have legal standing to sue. In addition, inspection and enforcement by the USDA is sparse, and many animals who should be protected by the statute do not enjoy this modest protection as a result.

State Laws

In general, animals raised for food fare the same at the state level as they do under federal law. Protections are minimal.

Every state has an animal cruelty statute, but most explicitly exempt animals raised for food and other commercial purposes. The exemptions generally apply to “normal” or “routine” practices on farms. Thus, those alleged to have committed animal cruelty on a farm can defend themselves by demonstrating that everyone else treats their animals as poorly as they do. For example, the Pennsylvania cruelty law exempts “activity undertaken in normal agricultural operation.” In the 1993 case Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Barnes, the owner of a horse farm decided that he did not want his horses anymore and left them in a pen without food, water, or shelter to die. He was charged with animal cruelty. His defense at trial was that all the farmers allowed their horses to starve to death when they decided they didn’t want them anymore. He was convicted, but on appeal, the court agreed with him that the fact that everyone starved their horses to death in Pennsylvania meant that the defendant could too. Needless to say, if people who stand to profit from using animals get to decide what is a normal agricultural operation, it will not be advantageous to the animals.

However, some states do have statutes providing additional protections for animals. The first state farmed animal protection law of the modern era was in New Jersey in 1996. The legislature ordered the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to promulgate humane farming regulations. The NJDA did nothing for years, and when it did, it merely allowed every routine farming practice then used in New Jersey. A coalition of animal protection organizations led by the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, filed suit, alleging that the NJDA’s actions violated the legislature’s mandate. In 2008, the Supreme Court issued a decision. It did not disturb the majority of NJDA’s regulation, but found that NJDA’s decision to permit farmers to engage in tail docking–cutting off cows’ tails for hygienic purposes–was incorrect.

The next major protection for farm animals was passed by ballot initiative in Florida in 2002, banning the use of gestation crates for pigs. Gestation crates are small pens, scarcely larger than the pigs themselves, where the animals are confined while they are pregnant. They cannot turn around or move front to back or side to side in these pens. In 2004, an Arizona ballot initiative banning gestation crates and veal crates passed in Arizona. In 2008, an overwhelming majority of California voters passed an initiative banning gestation and veal crates and battery cages—tiny, cramped cages that confine egg-laying hens—from being used in the state. The California legislature thereafter passed two additional laws: one banned the importation of eggs produced using battery cages into the state, to ensure that California farms would not be forced out of state, and one banning tail-docking. Also in 2008, the Colorado legislature passed a law outlawing gestation crates, and in 2009, Maine banned gestation crates and Michigan outlawed gestation and veal crates. Ohio followed suit the following year, banning gestation and veal crates, and creating a moratorium on the construction of new battery cages statewide. Rhode Island is home to the most recent farm animal protection law, banning gestation and veal crates and tail-docking.

In Washington, an initiative was proposed in 2011 that would have banned battery cages. The initiative’s proponents gathered enough signatures to put it on the ballot in the general election. However, before they were submitted to the Secretary of State, the proponents reached a deal with the United Egg Producers, the primary industry group representing egg farmers, to scratch the initiative in favor of lobbying jointly for a federal law protecting egg-laying hens. Unfortunately, such a law has not yet materialized.


Because the legal landscape for farmed animal protection is so paltry, abuses occur at factory farms en masse. Living a vegan lifestyle is the best way to ensure that you are not contributing to the suffering that takes place on farms, largely unabated by legislative interventions.

About Jenn Kaplan

Jenn Kaplan is an attorney at The Law Office of Gilbert Levy in Seattle. She has clerked in the litigation departments of The Humane Society of the United States and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Her firm’s primary practice area is criminal defense, but she also regularly advises animal rights and other progressive social justice activists.

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