Will the Farm Bill Nullify Laws Against Animal Cruelty?

In the last few years, California and several other states have enacted legislation to prevent some of the worst abuse of farm animals. But last week Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) successfully introduced an amendment to the farm bill that would not only jeopardize those laws, but also any laws passed by any other state that might seek to restrict factory farm cruelty.

The current Farm Bill expires at the end of September, so Congress has to cobble together a new one in a hurry. King's amendment was introduced near midnight at the very end of a marathon session. It was debated for a grand total of 20 minutes, and then passed by the House Committee on Agriculture.

If the Senate follows suit, it will become law.

Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) President Wayne Pacelle says the measure could nullify "any laws to protect animals, and perhaps... laws to protect the environment, workers, or public safety." The amendment is worded so broadly, he notes, that it could even prevent states from enacting laws that would prevent the sale of food produced by forced labor.

But Congressman King is proud of his amendment because, he says, it "will ensure that radical organizations like the Humane Society of the United States... are prohibited from establishing... restrictive state laws." King doesn't want anyone, particularly anyone associated with animal welfare causes, telling America's farmers how to raise and care for their animals. "My [amendment] language wipes out everything they've done [to ban the most cruel practices] with pork and veal."

King is particularly peeved with California. In 2008, California voters passed a ballot measure requiring that by 2015, no eggs can be sold in the state that come from hens housed in cages so small they can't begin to lift a single wing. The act was a repudiation of the livestock industry's practice of keeping animals in conditions that violate their natures and frustrate almost all of their natural instincts. And this month a state law banning foie gras took effect. "Foie gras" literally means "fatty liver." To produce it, workers ram pipes down male ducks' or geese's throats several times a day, pumping otherwise impossible amounts of fat into the animals' stomachs. Their livers bloat to up to 10 times their normal size, and are then sold as an expensive delicacy.

King doesn't like these kinds of bans. His amendment, called the "Protect Interstate Commerce Act," says that states that object to the way a food product is produced in other states cannot ban the sale of that product.

Paradoxically, King is normally an outspoken proponent of states' rights, so much so that he has expressed strong support for states' rights to ban contraception. Reporter and blogger Zack Beauchamp points out the irony. Congressman King would permit states to ban birth control, but not foie gras.

Perhaps the contradiction can be explained by the fact that King's current bid for re-election depends on the financial backing of agribusiness interests in his state, and these interests are vehemently opposed to California's laws. Bowing to the dictates of industrial agriculture and factory farms, King's home state of Iowa has virtually no restrictions on the conditions that can be imposed on egg-laying hens or other farm animals. This is one of the reasons the state has been responsible for some of the worst outbreaks of salmonella poisoning in U.S. history.

Congressman King's views are often extreme. Last year, he said that providing free birth control to women could make us a "dying civilization." And just in the last few months: He has made headlines by saying there would be no discrimination against gays in the workplace if gays would simply keep their sexual orientation secret. He has compared detention for immigrants to holiday resorts. And he has equated janitors in House office buildings to the East German secret police for installing energy-efficient light-bulbs.

But King's amendment to the Farm Bill isn't just outrageous talk. It's designed not only to block California's animal safety laws, but also to prevent any state from imposing its own animal welfare standards on producers from other states. And it's now part of the Farm Bill that has been approved by the House.

Another Republican Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, once said "I care not much for a man's religion whose dog or cat are not the better for it." But Steve King takes a different approach.

Neither King nor Lincoln ever graduated from college. But that's about as far as the likeness goes. For unlike Steve King, Abraham Lincoln understood that how we treat animals says something about the kind of human beings we are.

John Robbins is the author of many bestsellers including The Food Revolution, No Happy Cows: Dispatches From The Frontlines of The Food Revolution and Diet For A New America. He and his son, Ocean Robbins, are co-hosts of the 32,000 member Food Revolution Network. He is the recipient of the Rachel Carson Award, the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award, the Peace Abbey's Courage of Conscience Award, and Green America's Lifetime Achievement Award. To learn more about his work, visit