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Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press

Should the government tell farmers how to do their jobs?

  • Article by: LARRY LIEPOLD
  • January 31, 2012 - 8:17 PM

Imagine government bureaucrats telling livestock farmers how much space to allow for each of their animals.

Couldn't happen here, right? Maybe in China or the old Soviet Union, but not in Minnesota.

Don't be so sure. A bill introduced in Congress recently could lead to just that -- Washington literally dictating day-to-day practices on farms, right down to how much floor space to allot for each hog or cow.

HR3798, introduced Jan. 23, would write into federal law an agreement between an association of egg producers and an animal-rights group, the Humane Society of the United States. The agreement requires the egg industry over time to nearly double the size of the cages it uses for hens, from the current standard of 64 square inches to 124 square inches. The cost estimate for that change alone is $4 billion to $10 billion.

In addition, the bill dictates egg-labeling requirements and new air-quality standards for henhouses. In return, the Humane Society agreed not to seek state ballot initiatives mandating cage dimensions and to stop lawsuits and undercover investigations of the egg industry.

As a hog farmer, I have no argument with egg producers agreeing with the Humane Society on standards for hen housing. My concern is codifying the agreement in law, as HR3798 would do. That sets a precedent for allowing the federal government to dictate how all livestock producers operate.

As soon as the egg producers' agreement is written into law, pressure will mount to include pig farmers, dairy farmers and cattle ranchers. In the end, all corners of animal agriculture could be affected, irreparably damaging the livelihoods of family farmers across the country.

Europe already has gone this route, with disastrous results. The head of the European Egg Processors' Association said recently that a 2010 cage regulation in Germany has reduced production 20 percent. The story is similar in the United Kingdom, where housing requirements have increased operating costs by 8 percent.

And that doesn't just affect farmers. These increases in costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher food prices and fewer choices in the supermarket. That's the last thing American consumers need as the nation struggles to emerge from a crippling recession.

In addition, with the federal budget under extreme pressure, the proposed law would direct money away from food safety and other needed activities and toward an unconscionable government intrusion on the farm.

Treating farm animals humanely doesn't require an act of Congress. Livestock farmers know best how to care for their animals. In the hog industry, we have best practices that promote both animal well-being and food safety. We don't need federal bureaucrats -- or the Humane Society -- telling us how to run our farms.

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Larry Liepold is a hog farmer from Okabena, Minn., and is a member of the board of the National Pork Producers Council.

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