AVMA weighs in on California livestock housing referendum

Proposal could be harmful, AVMA says; sparks discord within CVMA
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An upcoming California referendum on mandatory changes to livestock confinement practices has the AVMA concerned the proposal could compromise animal welfare by requiring producers to adopt systems that don't account for all aspects of humane treatment.

Although reluctant to involve the AVMA in state politics, preferring instead to address veterinary and animal-related issues at the national level, Association leaders believe the referendum, sponsored by national organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States, warranted a response because it is part of a larger, state-by-state campaign targeting food animal production.

The referendum, known as the Standards for Confining Farm Animals, or Proposition 2, has roiled the nation's largest state veterinary association. The California VMA's support for Proposition 2 caused small numbers of CVMA members—including the chair of the CVMA agriculture committee—and unaffiliated large animal veterinarians to form an organization opposed to the proposal. This new group, the Association of California Veterinarians, intends on speaking for veterinarians on matters pertaining to California's animal agriculture industry.

In April, a coalition of humane organizations gathered more than the necessary 433,971 signatures to put Proposition 2 on the California ballot this November. The measure would require that, effective 2015, egg-laying hens, veal calves, and pregnant sows have enough room to lie down, stand, turn around, and fully extend their limbs (see JAVMA, May, 1, 2008).

Referendums are a way of bringing legislation directly to the public for a vote. Many states allow such forms of "direct democracy" as do a number of city governments. So far, referendums on livestock housing have been successful in at least two states. Sow gestation stalls were banned in Florida by voters in 2002 (effective 2008); four years later, veal calf and gestation stalls were prohibited in Arizona (effective 2012).

I feel good about the decision we made, and we have until 2015 to have this implemented.


Notably, California is not a major veal producer. Moreover, gestation stalls are already being phased out by the state's largest pork producer. The state's poultry industry would feel the effects of Proposition 2 most, as California is home to more than 19 million egg-laying hens and is the fifth largest egg-producing state in the country.

After nearly yearlong deliberations over Proposition 2, the California VMA board of governors passed a resolution supporting the proposal, finding it consistent with the association's "Eight Principles of Animal Care and Use," which describe veterinarians' commitment to animals. For instance, Principle 5 states: "Animals should be provided with water, nutrition, and an environment appropriate to their care and use, with consideration for their safety, health, and species-specific biological needs and behavioral natures."

The CVMA did temper its endorsement of Proposition 2 with a few caveats. "While the CVMA supports the concept that animals should be allowed to turn around, lie down, stand up and fully extend their limbs when confined," the statement reads, "we also believe that issues such as public health, biosecurity, and good farming practices must be considered.

"The CVMA firmly believes that any modifications of the current system should be made in consultation with California's food animal veterinarians, the leading authorities on the health and well being of production animals," the statement concluded.

It was a complete shock when the (California VMA) board of governors came out in support of Prop 2.


Still, the association's endorsement of Proposition 2 "angered, frustrated, and disappointed" some CVMA members, who say the decision is neither science-based nor recommended by food animal veterinarians within the CVMA nor supported by groups such as the American Association of Avian Pathologists, explained Dr. Michael S. Karle, chair of the CVMA agriculture committee. As a result, they have established the Association of California Veterinarians, with Dr. Karle as president, to express their opposition to the referendum.

The ACV promotes itself as backing science-based standards, practices, and policies that enable state livestock and poultry producers to provide "a wholesome, safe, nutritious, and affordable food supply." The group's goal is to become the principal veterinary organization on issues affecting California's animal agriculture industry. Dr. Karle estimates the number of ACV members at around 20 and "growing every day."

The CVMA agriculture committee recommended nonsupport of Proposition 2 while the CVMA House of Delegates voted in favor of the association, taking a neutral position on the measure. 

"It was a complete shock when the board of governors came out in support of Prop 2," said Dr. Karle, a bovine practitioner working primarily with dairy cattle. "We have to answer to our clients every day on these kinds of issues, and for CVMA to take a support position on this is basically like us abandoning our clients."

Despite the dispute, CVMA President William A. Grant believes the association is acting in the best interests of the animals and in accordance with its Eight Principles. "I feel good about the decision we made, and we have until 2015 to have this implemented," Dr. Grant said. He pointed out that advances in food animal housing are already leading some producers to switch to more open housing systems.

"People are concerned about the slippery slope," Dr. Grant said about fears that Proposition 2 is just the beginning of a legislative assault on food animal production in California. "I don't see a slippery slope at this point," he said.

A small animal practitioner, Dr. Grant regrets the discord within the CVMA but said he respects the dissenting members' opinion. In fact, Dr. Grant has "a lot of faith" in Dr. Karle, who he reappointed chair of the agriculture committee when he took office. "If this is something they want to do, that's fine," Dr. Grant said. "I do think that anytime we fragment our members, it's a mistake. Our strength is in our unity." The San Diego County VMA has also endorsed Proposition 2, he added.

Dr. Karle and the other CVMA members recognize there are advantages of retaining their affiliation with the association, such as insurance benefits, and have no plans of renouncing their memberships.

Seeing the Proposition 2 debate as a California matter, Dr. Grant formally requested in a letter sent to the AVMA that the organization not comment on the proposal. But in a statement issued Aug. 26, the AVMA said it welcomed the effort to improve animal welfare but worried Proposition 2 "ignored critical aspects of animal welfare" and, if enacted, could threaten the well-being of the very animals it means to protect. (Read the AVMA statement in its entirety on this page. For more information, visit avma.org/issues/animal_welfare/california_proposition2.asp).

"Proposition 2 would clearly provide greater freedom of movement, but would likely compromise several of the other factors necessary to ensure the overall welfare of the animals, especially with regard to protection from disease and injury," the statement reads.

The AVMA Executive Board approved the comments during a special teleconference convened Aug. 18. While reluctant to involve the Association in state politics, AVMA leaders believed they needed to air their concerns over parts of Proposition 2. Namely, they think the proposal fails to account for all aspects of animal welfare, according to Dr. Ron DeHaven, AVMA CEO and executive vice president.

Additionally, the measure's wording is vague, they say, so that when regulations implementing the law are written, they may preclude certain housing systems with the potential to enhance animal welfare. "Legally, the language may be clear," Dr. DeHaven said. "Scientifically, it is not."

"We are not taking a position on Proposition 2," Dr. DeHaven explained. "But we are concerned that there could be unintended consequences that will negatively impact the welfare of affected animals. We want our members in California and the public to consider these potential consequences when they make their decision on how to vote."

Dr. Karle was "elated" by the AVMA's response. "I was very pleased, and we came to the same conclusions for the same reasons," he said.

Portions of the AVMA statement agree with what the CVMA has said about Proposition 2, according to Dr. Grant. But he does take issue with the charge that the association is ignoring animal welfare. Moreover, the AVMA, Dr. Grant said, is contradicting itself, considering how the AVMA House of Delegates just recently passed a resolution calling on the veal calf industry to adopt less-confining housing systems (see JAVMA, Sept. 1, 2008).

Dr. Grant is confident the state veterinary association can weather the controversy through professional unity. "My feeling ... is we're veterinarians: we can analyze these issues and, hopefully, we can come to terms in agreement within our organization," he said. "That's what we have done before, and we're hoping to do again."

AVMA responds to 'Prop 2'

This November, California voters will decide on Proposition 2, a ballot initiative sponsored by a coalition of animal protection groups requiring that egg-laying hens, veal calves, and pregnant sows have room enough to lie down, stand, turn around, and fully extend their limbs, effective 2015. The initiative, Standards for Confining Farm Animals, is backed by the California VMA. Some CVMA members have formed the Association of California Veterinarians because they disagree with their association's support for Proposition 2.

Although the AVMA applauds every effort to promote animal welfare, the Association is concerned about possible, unintended negative consequences to animal welfare of enacting the measure. Following is the AVMA's response to Proposition 2.

"The American Veterinary Medical Association believes Proposition 2, 'Standards for Confining Farm Animals,' is admirable in its goal to improve the welfare of production farm animals; however, it ignores critical aspects of animal welfare that ultimately would threaten the well-being of the very animals it strives to protect.

"The best housing environments take into consideration all relevant factors, including: freedom of movement; expression of normal behaviors; protection from disease, injury, and predators; adequate food and water; and proper handling. Proposition 2 would clearly provide greater freedom of movement, but would likely compromise several of the other factors necessary to ensure the overall welfare of the animals, especially with regard to protection from disease and injury.

"AVMA is the premier professional organization representing veterinarians in the United States. As such, we are not only a key medical authority on animal health and welfare, but just as importantly, we truly care about the animals we serve every day. It is in that mindset that we strive for continued improvement of animal housing systems through comprehensive, science-based evaluations with the expert input from veterinarians and animal welfare scientists.

"We are concerned that legislating isolated, arbitrary and emotion-based criteria to implement farm animal housing systems may actually do more harm than good for the well-being of the animals while compromising the sustainability of production systems that are essential to ensure we continue to have the safest, most affordable, and abundant food supply in the world."

The Association's positions on the housing of layer chickens, veal calves, and pregnant sows are available on the AVMA Web site (www.avma.org) under Animal Welfare by clicking on AVMA Animal Welfare Policy Statements.