Agriculture board approves livestock care standards despite objections

Cattled grazed in November on Blue Gate Farm on Military Pike in Lexington. The farm is part of the Purchase of Development Rights program to preserve farmland.
Cattled grazed in November on Blue Gate Farm on Military Pike in Lexington. The farm is part of the Purchase of Development Rights program to preserve farmland.

FRANKFORT — Over objections from the Humane Society of the United States, the Kentucky Board of Agriculture approved standards Tuesday for the care of farm animals.

The Humane Society said Agriculture Commissioner James Comer had promised a public hearing before a vote.

"Instead of allowing the public to take part in this process, the commission and commissioner are intent on merely rubber-stamping some of the worst forms of animal cruelty opposed by both veterinarians and the public," HSUS spokeswoman Pam Rogers said in a statement.

Rogers told the panel that her group has serious concerns about some practices that would be allowed under the new regulations.

The standards would allow practices such as docking the tails of dairy cows, housing egg-laying hens in battery cages, and penning sows in gestation crates. Crates for veal calves would be discontinued by 2017.

Food buyers have become increasingly uncomfortable with some of those techniques, prompting marketers to sell "cage-free eggs" and some restaurant chains to advertise that they use cruelty-free meat.

"Consumers — driven by increasing awareness of abusive farming practices — are demanding better treatment of farm animals. The current standards of care (with the exception of the veal crate phase-out) will put Kentucky in a long-term competitive disadvantage," Rogers said.

The regulations must go through the legislative review process, which allows for public comment and committee hearings.

"They are going to have a public hearing before the administrative regulations are voted on," Comer said Wednesday. "I let them come speak before the ag board vote, and it did not have any impact on the Board of Agriculture."

Comer said the standards represent what livestock producers say are the most humane ways of handling animals.

"That's the way the industry leaders want to do it. I represent the farmers and want to support their industries," Comer said. "But I have 100 percent confidence our farmers are treating their livestock humanely."

Jeff Harper, director of public affairs for the Kentucky Farm Bureau, said the organization is pleased with the standards. Farm Bureau lobbied for passage of the bill that created the care standards commission.

Harper said the goal was to "base these things on the science and the research and get some standards in place to protect animal agriculture in the commonwealth."

He acknowledged that consumers' evolving preferences for food production have influenced farmers. Egg producers, for instance, are shifting to larger spaces even for caged hens.

Harper said consumer awareness is a positive trend.

"Not only in Kentucky but in America, our farmers are trying to feed an ever-growing population. Buying local is good, and people should become more aware of their food sources," Harper said. "It's critical for the public to understand that it's in the farmers' best interest to take proper care of their livestock and poultry to help their bottom line."

He said the standards Kentucky has selected are humane.

"It will be up to the consumers whether or not they embrace it," he said.