Will Tom Vilsack Make Animal Welfare a Priority At USDA?

Animals are at the center of agriculture, yet their welfare is typically given lip service by this massive bureaucracy

In selecting Tom Vilsack as Agriculture Secretary, Biden has turned to an experienced hand to run the $135 billion agency. The former Iowa Governor served for all eight years in that role for the Obama-Biden team from 2009 to 2017. Vilsack came into USDA with considerable animal-welfare credentials after vetoing a bill to allow the shooting of mourning doves that was one of the biggest controversies in the state. And just weeks into his tenure at USDA, in March 2009, Vilsack banned the slaughter of downer cows for human consumption, after a major investigation exposed sickening abuses of the animals that put in a pit in the stomachs of omnivorous Americans and a major dent in foreign trade of American beef. 

In subsequent years, though, Vilsack was widely criticized by animal welfare groups for slow-walking ameliorative policies. For instance, he waited until the very end of his eight-year tenure — literally advancing rule-making action in the very last two days of the Obama Presidency — to address horse soring and organic standards for animal agriculture. That tardiness cost animals dearly, allowing Donald Trump’s Agriculture chief, Sonny Perdue, to put the kibosh on both rules. Vilsack took a similarly slow-motion action on regulations related to the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard (GIPSA) Administration that would have given family farmers a better chance to compete against industrialized farming operations. 

Overall, during his eight-year run at USDA — which started in the days after the landmark passage of Proposition 2 in California rocked agribusiness by banning extreme confinement of pigs and chickens on factory farms in America’s biggest agricultural state — Vilsack’s tenure was not known for any significant animal welfare achievements, other than the downer cow issue that had been set in motion by the prior Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer. 

Vilsack Inherits a Department Blatantly Hostile to Animal Welfare Under Sonny Perdue

Vilsack does, however, have a chance to put a different kind of stamp on animal welfare in American food and farm policy. That’s partly because he takes over after a disastrous performance by his predecessor Sonny Perdue — a veterinarian who, ironically, showed no sympathy whatever for animal welfare work. I don’t believe Perdue chose to meet with any major animal protection leaders during his four-year tenure, even though the department enforces the nation’s main animal protection laws and has regulatory responsibility for more animals than any other federal agency. 

In addition to nixing the anti-horse soring rule and the farm animal protection standards for organic producers, Perdue and his deputies refused to publish USDA inspection records and violation notices for licensed dog breeding operations and laboratories and also violation notices for horse soring abuses through a searchable website. The take-down may not have made much difference though, because under his direction, USDA barely took any enforcement actions against violators. He turned loose federal hunters and trappers to slaughter wildlife by the millions every year. And he doled out billions in subsidies to animal agriculture sectors and promoted anti-competitive policies that drove more farmers off the land. His Agriculture Department even recommended that the federal courts nix key provisions of California’s Proposition 12, a follow up act to Prop 2 that restricts the sale of pork and eggs in the state from factory farms that rely on caging pigs and laying hens.

Responding to the wishes of Lara Trump — the President’s daughter-in-law — Perdue’s USDA passed one soft rule to forbid dog breeders who lost their licenses from transferring control to a family member. The feds also did bring down the hammer against Joe Exotic and Jeff Lowe for their mistreatment of captive tigers at their USDA-inspected menageries, but U.S Attorneys and other key players at the Department of Justice deserve much of the credit for those interventions. USDA’s Office of Inspector General – also an entity that was not under Perdue’s control – also took some positive actions against illegal animal fighters in California and Georgia.

Vilsack Returns After Leading Dairy Export Trade Group

After he departed USDA, Vilsack worked for a dairy industry trade association, benefitting from check-off dollars that have long been misused by private industry. USDA has been rightly criticized for lax oversight of the spending of $700 million in check-off dollars, including $500 million for animal agriculture trade groups. These groups are supposed to use the dollars for marketing programs, but they deploy some of these dollars to fund their staff and even use money for lobbying to thwart legislative reforms advanced by animal welfare, family farm, and environmental organizations. There is a very real fear that, under Vilsack, check-off abuses will go unaddressed for at least one more presidential term. 

He’s not expected, however, to be a leader in pushing for the inclusion of poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act — an outrageous omission in the underlying statute that excludes 95 percent of farm animals from any requirement that the animals be painlessly killed. Nor is he expected to play a role in a transition away from confinement agriculture, even though a dozen states and hundreds of major corporations are shunning the use of battery cages for laying hens and gestation crates.

That said, the world has changed a great deal in the last four years, with animal protection values and conscious eating ascendant in society and the Democratic party base demanding more action on climate change, animal welfare, and wildlife protection. There is some hope that Vilsack will read the tea leaves and be stirred to act on animal welfare more forthrightly and comprehensively. 

Here are some of the issues Vilsack and his team must take on: 

  • Undertake rulemaking to reinstate all provisions of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Rule as promulgated in the final days of the Obama Administration in January 2017 to establish the first federal farm animal welfare standards in the United States. 
  • Initiate a buy-out of American mink farms, which are potential super-spreaders of COVID-19. The total revenues from all U.S.-based mink farms are down five-hold over the last eight years — at $59 million, with most pelts sold to China. The U.S. should not be maintaining COVID-incubating production facilities for the benefit of China and putting American communities at risk. Thousands of European fur farms are being phased out for the same reasons.
  • Press Congress to adopt a modified version of the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act to end horse soring abuses and establish federal felony penalties for violators. If Congress chooses not to act, he can conduct a rulemaking that takes a smaller bite at the problem by addressing action devices, stacked shoes, and industry self-regulation. 
  • Strengthen enforcement of puppy mill inspections and disciplinary actions and recognize a ban, imposed on the 2008 Farm bill, that bans imports of dogs six months and younger for commercial sale in the U.S. 
  • Set a goal to dramatically increase non-lethal management by Wildlife Services, reduce lethal actions against wildlife by 50 percent, and eliminate any use of poisons (sodium cyanide and sodium fluoroacetate) for wildlife control actions.
  • Urge Congress to pass a statute to end cub petting commerce (via the Big Cat Public Safety Act) and also a USDA rulemaking to amend the agency’s animal handling regulations to prohibit Animal Welfare Act (AWA) licensees from allowing members of the public to come into direct or close contact with big cats, bears, and non-human primates of any age.
  • Slow down line speeds at pork and poultry plants. The problem was acute before Perdue took over, but the situation became even more unlivable for animals and workers with the Trump team’s maneuvers to deregulate factory farms and slaughterhouses.
  • Interrupt agricultural trade programs that are making the United States a factory farm plantation for China. USDA has long promoted the sale of massive volumes of pork, beef, and other meat and dairy products for export to China and other nations. The consequence is that America’s rural communities bear the brunt of the costs of these factory farms – with the effluent from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) polluting water and putrefy our air, the dosing of overcrowded animals with antibiotics promoting the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and confinement of animals tormenting animals. As one family farm advocate told me, why should America continue to serve as China’s outhouse? 
  • Advocate for an animal welfare title in the next Farm bill, urging the Congress to strengthen animal welfare standards in dog breeding, promote the Farm System Reform Act, the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act, and a ban on gestation crates and battery cages in the United States. 

Indeed, no agency is more in need of 21st-century thinking when it comes to the treatment of animals than USDA. There’s long been seat-swapping between USDA leaders and the top guns in American agribusiness.

And while the Biden Administration has largely been silent on the broad set of animal welfare questions, that hardly means there’s any less demand from the public for both methodical and bold action on the broad set of animal welfare problems that are in the lap of the USDA.

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