There is a battle going on in the supermarket for the hearts, minds and stomachs of meat and egg consumers, and Kentucky is stepping into the fray.
The Kentucky Livestock Care Standards Commission, created last year by the General Assembly, is debating the complexities of how farm animals should be treated.
For instance: is it OK to remove tails, horns and beaks without anesthesia? To confine egg-laying chickens in cages where they can't extend their wings or sows in stalls that don't allow them to turn around?
These practices have drawn fire from animal welfare groups, but many in the meat industry defend them as not only acceptable but necessary to produce the quantity and quality of meat Americans demand.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
A lot is at stake. Kentucky has about 85,000 farms, ranging from small "backyard" farms to major large-scale poultry, hog and cattle operations. Sales of Kentucky farm animals, including horses, topped $2.4 billion in 2009.
Kentucky farmers raised an estimated 2.3 million beef and dairy cattle, more than 310 million broilers and egg-laying hens, about 350,000 hogs and pigs, 37,000 sheep and lambs, and about 85,000 goats that year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers say it is in their best interest to treat their animals well, but animal welfare is an emotional topic for them, for consumers and for animal advocates and has prompted battles across the country. At least seven states — Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, and Oregon — have passed laws to phase out or limit production practices such as cages for egg-laying hens, gestation stalls for sows and crates for veal calves.
Those practices are likely to come under scrutiny eventually in Kentucky, said Danny Wilkinson, an Adair County farmer and Kentucky Farm Bureau board member who is on the commission. Animal confinement is likely to be the most difficult issue the board takes on, he said.
"Defining the line as to what is abuse and what is not is what's difficult. I'd rather people here do it than outsiders with an agenda," Wilkinson said. "Do we have an agenda? Maybe. But my agenda is to allow Kentucky farmers to continue to produce a safe, bountiful food supply in a way we can do it economically."
Dr. Robert Stout, state veterinarian, agreed that the board will have to address some very contentious issues.
"It's a touchy subject. A lot of people do have strong feelings about it," he said. "People are much more familiar with dogs and cats and horses. They know animals as companions and not commodities."
Respect for the animal
Stout has been designated by Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer to chair the commission, which is charged with making recommendations on farm standards to the state Agriculture Board.
A new bill, moving through the House, would alter the makeup of the Agriculture Board, which is appointed by the governor. The legislation would lock in seats for the Kentucky Farm Bureau, as well as representatives of the seven largest commodities, something that concerns small-farm advocates.
Cassia Herron, vice president of Community Farm Alliance's board, said the concentration of power is a bad idea.
"The people they're trying to put on the board don't represent small farmers," Herron said.
The Agriculture Board can either approve the recommendations or send them back to the livestock care standards commission to be reworked, but the Agriculture Board can't make changes on its own.
The standards commission has set up six subcommittees to research existing species-specific rules that can be applied in Kentucky, Stout said.
Confining animals in cages, crates and stalls has been a particular hot-button issue in many places. Washington state is the latest to face a campaign for a ballot initiative to mandate more room for egg-laying hens to move around.
"We need to guard against trying to extrapolate human comfort levels to animals," Stout said. "Those are the issues where the science has to be looked at. ... Those practices have been portrayed as abuse. I would like to see the science that substantiates that charge."
No doubt animal advocacy groups will be happy to supply those studies, and the meat industry will be just as quick to rebut with their own data.
The process of generating these rules is likely to be time-consuming: the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board was sworn into office in April and so far has passed rules only on euthanasia and what penalties will be for violating the rules.
Stout said fewer people today are familiar with where food comes from, and many may not want to know.
"I think there is a general awareness — they want these animals treated humanely and they want their food raised safely," Stout said. "You can't slaughter an animal without killing it. The key thing is that we do it right and do it in a way that respects the animal."
Taking market by storm
Consumers are swayed by more than science: emotions, health concerns and price all can play a role in what people choose to buy.
"Every species in the U.S. is being taken by storm," said Glynn T. Tonsor, a Kansas State University agricultural economist. A study he published last year indicated that any time there is media coverage of the issue of animal welfare, people buy less meat.
"All the work I've done says, 'yes, people care,'" Tonsor said. The question is how much: Tonsor said there isn't enough research on how much more people are willing to pay. Because of less efficient production methods, cage-free eggs typically cost three or four times what cage-produced eggs cost and account for less than 5 percent of the U.S. market.
Phil Lempert, editor of The Lempert Report and SupermarketGuru, said he doesn't expect the price difference to stay that great.
"I think you should have to pay maybe 20 percent more," Lempert said.
Lempert predicts that the "humanely raised" label is likely to be one of the biggest marketing trends of 2011.
"The humane label will be one of the most powerful labels out there, surpassing organic," he said. "It's starting with eggs and poultry and will blossom to other kinds of meat. ... It will be in every supermarket in the country very shortly."
Because there are no federal standards, humane claims may be verified by third-party auditors. Whole Foods supermarket last year announced a five-step welfare ratings system in conjunction with Global Food Partnership; meat and eggs will be labeled according to how individual suppliers raised the animals.
But such labeling also has come under fire. In November, the Humane Society of the U.S. sued Perdue for selling chicken as "humanely raised," accusing the producer of false advertising. Perdue denies that.
Restaurants, fast-food chains and food companies also tout that at least some percentage of their products are made from humanely raised animals.
But it isn't clear how much difference these claims make to the average consumer.
Grant County Judge Executive Darrell Link, who is on the livestock care standards commission, said that as a "hobby farmer" he sees a wide range of perspectives.
"There are some people that want to come actually to the farm to buy grass-fed beef and eggs from chickens that have actually seen sunshine," Link said. "But there's a large market that doesn't care about any of those things."
Change is coming
Scott Smith, dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, is also on the care standards commission.
Smith said that the market already is driving tremendous change in animal welfare standards.
"You should expect them to evolve in Kentucky as well," Smith said. "The market often does establish practices in many ways."
He cited the growth in local foods and grass-fed beef as examples of items consumers seek out and pay more for and in turn spur farmers to provide.
"That direction is being pushed not by regulation but by what people will buy," Smith said.
Gene Baur, co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, which has campaigned against confined feeding systems, said that the fact that Kentucky is discussing the issues at all is positive.
"People oppose animal cruelty by and large and what is happening on today's farms would be considered animal cruelty by many people," Baur said. "Change is going to happen; it's just a matter of how is it going to happen."
Baur, a vegan, said his group encourages people to make food choices aligned with their own values and their own interests.
"There are certain practices that go over the line in most citizens' minds," Baur said. "That's what the (Kentucky) board needs to figure out — where's that line?"