AWI Analysis Finds Weak Enforcement of State Farm Animal Welfare Laws

No single federal law explicitly addresses the treatment of animals raised for human consumption on farms in the United States. Due to growing public concern, many states have taken action to improve the welfare of these animals. In fact, during the past 20 years, more than two dozen state laws and regulations have been enacted to protect farm animals. Until now, however, no in-depth analysis has been made regarding enforcement of these laws. 

State laws protecting farm animals fall into three main categories: (1) on-farm minimum animal care standards, (2) bans on the sale of products that do not meet certain animal care standards, and (3) laws prohibiting specific conventional industry practices, such as intensive confinement and physical alterations. Animal care standards provide minimum guidance for the care and treatment of animals raised on farms. In Ohio, for example, rules affecting the care of cattle, pigs, turkeys, hens, sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, and equines went into effect in 2011. Generally, such laws provide state governments the authority to investigate farms for violations when complaints are filed by citizens. 

Two states (California and Oregon) have passed bans on the sale of food products from production systems that do not meet certain minimum animal care standards. In both cases, the laws were passed by the state legislature and cover the sale of eggs only. 

Anti-confinement laws prohibit extreme confinement of animals that can lead to pain and distress. For example, a number of states have banned or limited the use of gestation crates for pregnant sows. Other laws include those that ban the use of hen battery cages and prohibit or limit the use of veal crates. In addition, a few states have enacted limits or bans on tail docking of cattle, which is sometimes performed to facilitate close confinement of the animals. 

Many anti-confinement laws were created by ballot initiative, a process that allows citizens in certain states to place a measure on the statewide ballot and give voters a chance to approve either a statute or constitutional amendment. To date, all ballot initiatives relating to farm animal welfare have been instigated by animal advocates. Anti-confinement laws have also been enacted through legislation drafted by animal advocacy groups, by industry groups, or through collaborations between the two. 

Thus far, most state minimum animal care standards have been developed by livestock care standards boards that were established through state legislation. Some livestock care boards have been required to produce animal care standards that are then codified into law, while in other cases the development of standards has been at the board’s discretion. Either way, a primary motivation for establishing these boards appears to be to ward off more restrictive standards through legislation or ballot measure. 

AWI surveyed each state that has enacted on-farm animal protections to determine whether the provisions of those laws and/or regulations are being enforced and, if so, to what degree. To conduct this research, AWI submitted public records requests for documents related to the enforcement of 31 state farm animal protection provisions in effect as of January 2019 (see table at right). 

Of the 16 states that have implemented farm animal protection laws, eight provided AWI with evidence of enforcement, and AWI was able to locate documentation of enforcement by one additional state. The following is what we were able to uncover concerning eight of these nine states. (We are awaiting records from Rhode Island.)

Enforcement of State Farm Animal Protection Laws1

State Type of Protection Year Effective How Enacted Evidence of State Enforcement?
Alaska Animal care standard 2017 Legislation/Regulation Yes
Arizona Sow gestation crate ban 2013 Ballot measure No
Arizona Veal calf crate ban 2013 Ballot measure No
Arizona Hen housing standards 2009 Legislation/Regulation No
California Sow gestation crate ban 2015 Ballot measure ?2
California Veal calf crate ban 2015 Ballot measure ?2
California Hen battery cage ban 2015 Ballot measure Yes
California Battery cage egg sale ban 2015 Legislation ?2
California Cattle tail docking ban 2010 Legislation No
Colorado Sow gestation crate ban 2018 Legislation No
Colorado Veal calf crate ban 2012 Legislation No
Florida Sow gestation crate ban 2008 Ballot measure No
Indiana Animal care standards 2011 Legislation/Regulation Yes
Kentucky Animal care standards 2014 Legislation/Regulation No
Kentucky Veal calf crate ban 2018 Regulation No
Louisiana Animal care standards 2013 Legislation/Regulation No
Maine Sow gestation crate ban 2011 Legislation No
Maine Veal calf crate ban 2011 Legislation No
Maine Hen housing standards 2010 Legislation No
Michigan Veal calf crate ban 2012 Legislation No
New Jersey Animal care standards 2011 Legislation/Regulation Yes
Ohio Animal care standards 2011 Legislation/Regulation Yes
Ohio Veal calf crate limitations 2018 Regulation No
Oregon Sow gestation crate ban 2012 Legislation Yes
Oregon Hen housing standards/egg sale ban 2012 Legislation/Regulation ?2
Rhode Island Sow gestation crate ban 2013 Legislation/Regulation ?2
Rhode Island Veal calf crate ban 2013 Legislation/Regulation ?2
Rhode Island Cattle tail docking ban 2012 Legislation/Regulation ?2
Rhode Island Animal care standards 2014 Legislation/Regulation ?2
Washington Hen housing standards 2012 Legislation
West Virginia Animal care standards 2015 Legislation/Regulation Yes

Alaska has enacted specific care standards for several animal species—dogs, horses, pigs, and cattle and other ruminants, which became effective in 2017. Records received from the state were very limited, consisting only of email communications related to six investigations. Only one of the cases pertained to potential violations of the state’s animal care standards, and it involved horses. In that case, after numerous complaints, a veterinarian was sent to evaluate the animals, and the records indicate follow-up was provided by the vet for several months. The remaining cases were animal cruelty investigations that did not involve farm animals.

California has enacted the largest number of legal protections for farm animals. The state notified AWI that it had no records related to its cattle tail docking ban. It indicated it did have records related to its confinement bans, but we have received none as of the writing of this article. In February 2017, the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office announced that it had charged an Ontario, California, egg producer with 39 counts of violating the state’s Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (passed as the Proposition 2 ballot measure in 2008). 

Farm animal care investigations are conducted by the Indiana State Board of Animal Health (BOAH). AWI received compliance reports prepared by BOAH that included a brief description of the investigation, source of the complaint, species and number of animals involved, and resolution of the case. During 2018 and the first half of 2019, BOAH responded to 39 complaints involving farm animals. Little detail was provided about the nature of each investigation, but one complaint was referred to another agency and seven resulted in written warnings. 

In response to an undercover investigation of an egg-laying facility, the Maine legislature passed a bill in 2009 requiring the commissioner of agriculture, food and rural resources to develop best management practices (BMPs) for large egg producers. The BMPs address hen health, space allowances, food and water, lighting, ventilation, and transport conditions. Only one egg establishment is currently being audited under the program. According to Maine’s state veterinarian, the facility’s records are reviewed annually, and BMP inspections are performed periodically. Although Maine provided only one report from the past few years, AWI has seen evidence that inspections are conducted more frequently.

New Jersey
New Jersey appears to have a formal process for investigating and documenting animal care violations based on the records received. From January 2017 through August 2019, the New Jersey Department of Agriculture’s Division of Animal Health performed 22 humane field investigations, a majority of which were the result of anonymous complaints forwarded from local law enforcement and the (now disbanded) New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA). Of these investigations, nine involved severe violations of the state animal care standards. In total, 15 cases were referred to the NJSPCA or other state and local officials for enforcement action. 

The Ohio Department of Agriculture provided AWI with documents related to 56 animal welfare investigations conducted between October 2017 and November 2019. In addition, a total of 146 investigations were conducted from January 2012 through March 2016, according to a March 2016 Farm and Dairy article. In the article, the executive director of Ohio’s Livestock Care Standards Board credited about half of the investigations to complaints from local humane societies and said that most cases involve “backyard, small operations” raising cattle and horses. 

The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) says it has conducted two investigations to date into the purchase and distribution of out-of-state eggs that do not comply with Oregon’s minimum space standards for hens. Both investigations were initiated as a result of a complaint received from an in-state producer. In the first case, the ODA sent a cease and desist letter to an Iowa supplier. The second case involved a California-based egg wholesaler that purchased noncompliant eggs from a producer in Pennsylvania and then resold them to a distributer in Oregon. After an investigation, the California wholesaler was fined $8,750 for violation of the state’s sales ban. 

West Virginia
Records from West Virginia document two farm animal care investigations in 2018 and 2019 involving a livestock auction facility and a small hobby farm. The investigation into the auction was prompted by a complaint regarding pen conditions, lack of food and water, and frequent animal deaths. Documents from this investigation reveal confusion regarding the West Virginia Department of Agriculture’s enforcement authority and the failure of local and federal officials to assist with investigating the auction. The other investigation concerned potential animal care violations for failure to provide cattle with adequate food, but there was no indication that officials intended to follow up to ensure compliance.

Animal protection advocates have generally opposed the creation of minimum state animal care regulations due to concerns that they will be weak and will present an obstacle to obtaining higher-level husbandry standards. However, AWI’s survey reveals that a majority of states (7 of 12) that have enacted these minimum standards are conducting some type of enforcement activity, primarily investigating complaints received from humane societies, neighbors, and members of the public. While a majority of the investigations to date have focused on the treatment of animals on small hobby farms, some commercial operations have been inspected as well. 

Two states have passed bans on the sale of food products that were produced in violation of minimum animal care standards; as noted above, one of the two (Oregon) has provided evidence of enforcement. 

Unlike the case with minimum care standards and sale bans, AWI has received no enforcement evidence for 17 of 18 state anti-confinement laws covered by the survey. One possible explanation for the lack of enforcement of these laws is that a mechanism to facilitate enforcement was not included in the measures. Examples of enforcement mechanisms include producer reports or affidavits, third-party audits, and departmental inspections. There is also no evidence that animal protection advocates are filing complaints and/or requests for investigation with state agencies, possibly because access to animals held in intensive confinement settings is extremely limited. It is assumed that a vast majority of producers comply with anti-confinement laws by the time they go into effect, but there is currently no way to confirm this. 

To make meaningful use of these state laws, humane organizations and the general public should report to the appropriate agency any suspected mistreatment of farm animals.

1. Covers enforcement of state laws and regulations in effect as of January 2019.
2. State did not formally respond to requests for records.




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