A House committee is poised this week to take up a bill that would grant sweeping authority to regulate the treatment of farm animals to a new state panel.
The legislation, Senate Bill 105, would create the Kentucky Livestock Care Standards Commission, a 14-member group which could dictate how poultry, pigs, cattle, horses, goats and sheep are treated.
The bill mandates the commission consider "animal well-being and agricultural best management practices; herd health; and safe, affordable, healthy food supplies for consumers." But supporters are open about the real purpose: to prevent the imposition of what they see as onerous animal care standards.
According to a Kentucky Farm Bureau publication, its Animal Care Issue Task Force "recommended a state authority to set and oversee livestock care standards as a means to combat the continuing attacks against animal agriculture by some radical 'animal rights' groups."
Several states, including California, Oregon, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Maine, in recent years have put in place bans on the types of confinement sometimes used in factory farming. In several states, voters have overwhelmingly supported ballot initiatives against cages for egg-laying chickens, gestation crates for pregnant pigs, and crates for calves being raised for veal.
In response, farm groups have lobbied for preemptive legislation to assign the regulatory right to boards stacked with representatives of animal agriculture organizations.
"We think it's important to create a Kentucky livestock standards board that will establish the guidelines for what's acceptable in taking care of livestock in production," said David Beck, Kentucky Farm Bureau executive vice president. "We feel like it's important that those standards be developed by people knowledgeable, that are producers that understand the industry to make sure that we have a good system in place, to make sure they're being taken care of properly."
Presently, Kentucky regulations on livestock handling deal primarily with cases of disease or abandonment.
The proposed new panel would be chaired by the Agriculture Commissioner, with a Kentucky Farm Bureau representative as vice chair. The state veterinarian would have a seat on the panel but not a vote in its decisions.
Cattle, sheep and goats, pork, horses, and poultry would each have an industry representative.
Other members would include:
■ the dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture;
■ the chair of the Animal Control Advisory Board;
■ the director of one of the state's two animal labs;
■ a representative of the Kentucky County Judge/Executive Association;
■ a representative of the Kentucky Veterinary Medical Association;
■ and one citizen at large with an interest in food safety.
Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer has endorsed the commission, which he emphasized would have no investigators.
"These guidelines should be based not on emotion, but on scientific research and widely accepted practices," Farmer said in a news release. "The commission would develop standards at the state level, taking the pressure off local governments and creating consistency throughout the commonwealth."
Farmer could not be reached for comment last week.
The lack of any enforcement is one concern raised by the Kentucky Resources Council, an environmental watchdog group.
"It sets standards but has no mechanism for enforcement. It creates a regulatory vacuum ... but prevents local governments from acting," said KRC director Tom FitzGerald. "It gives the illusion of setting standards."
FitzGerald said the broadly written bill, which has already cleared the state Senate, could let the commission override the authority of state agencies that regulate confined-animal feeding operations. And local governments would only be allowed to regulate planning and zoning.
Community Farm Alliance president Adam Barr, a Meade County beef and poultry farmer, said the panel would be fine if it were advisory and if it mandated the representatives be actual farmers.
CFA wants the bill amended to have the commission advise the existing Kentucky Board of Agriculture to define the terms "neglect" and "cruelty."
"The current bill creates a regulatory body where we already have a regulatory body," Barr said, referring to the state Board of Agriculture. "It creates a commission out of thin air. It's pretty loose language. Loose language is always a sign of bad government on the way."
The chairman of the House Agriculture and Small Business Committee, Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, said Friday some amendments are likely to be offered when the bill comes up for a committee vote Wednesday. The bill's sponsor, Sen. David Givens, R-Greensburg, could not be reached for comment.