King Farm Bill Amendment Angers Animal Advocates

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Mike Blake / REUTERS

A caged hen feeds at an egg farm in San Diego County.

While House Republicans are fighting for food stamp cuts in the 2013 farm bill, Iowa Congressman Steve King is fighting to cut the size of chicken cages.

The Humane Society of the U.S. has been pressuring Congress to steer clear of the King Amendment, a provision attached to the House farm bill that threatens to undermine dozens of state animal protection laws. The Iowa Republican introduced the amendment in response to California’s Proposition 2, which requires egg-laying hens to be housed in roomier cages so they can stand up and spread their wings.

If the King amendment or similar language finds its way into a final farm bill package, however, California would no longer be able to apply this standard to the sale of eggs produced in other states. The Humane Society fears that the nation’s 250 million egg-laying hens would suffer.

King’s amendment wouldn’t just affect chickens. The measure is designed to prevent states from applying their own standards for “any agricultural product” to those made in other states. Federal law defines an agricultural product broadly. The term encompasses a wide swath of products such as such as livestock, poultry, dairy and plants, and “any and all products raised or produced on farms and any processed or manufactured product thereof.” This language could apply not only to animal confinement, but also to state laws on horse slaughter as well as other food safety and environmental requirements.

“It’s one of the most destructive and far-reaching anti-animal welfare provisions we’ve seen in decades,” Wayne Pacelle, the President and CEO of the Humane Society, tells TIME. “It could nullify laws to crack down on extreme confinement of animals on factory farms, on standards for puppy mills, on prohibitions on the sale of shark fins and much more.”

The amendment, officially known as the Protect Interstate Commerce Act, is not included in the Senate-passed farm bill, but the Humane Society worries it may be incorporated into the final bill as the House and Senate move toward conference negotiations.

Nearly 200 members of the House and Senate, both Republican and Democrat, have signed letters expressing their opposition to King’s proposal. But if the amendment can’t be nixed, Pacelle suggests, the entire farm bill could crumble. “If the conference committee retains that amendment or a modified version of it, it has the potential to bring down the entire bill,” he says. That has already happened once, when Republican insistence on a provision that cut food stamps spurred democrats to yank promised support for the normally bipartisan measure.

In an op-ed for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, King argued that his amendment will protect producers “from an emerging patchwork of state regulations” that create a burdensome trade barrier for farmers.

“California, as one of our nation’s most populated states, with its millions of consumers, is forcing producers around the country to comply with their unreasonable and arbitrary standards,” King said of California’s chicken cage regulations.

Given King’s history with animal protection laws, however, opponents find it hard to take the Iowa congressman seriously. In 2006 he opposed federal measures to crack down on horse slaughter, and he was against a federal policy that came in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to help pets in disasters. During the consideration of the 2012 farm bill last summer, King also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to block an amendment that would make it a crime for an adult to attend or bring a child to a dogfight.

“King has opposed every piece of federal legislation that would protect animals,” said John Goodwin, the Humane Society’s Director of Animal Cruelty Policy, at a press conference with state legislators on Tuesday. “When states try to implement their own standards, he attempts a radical federal overreach.”

Animal advocates will have to wait until Congress returns from recess to discover the amendment’s fate. Regardless of whether the King amendment is nixed or not, Jason Rano of the Environmental Working Group doubts that an agreement will be reached before the September 30 deadline. And if the farm bill is left to expire like it did last year, King’s provision will die with it.

“There’s nine days of both houses of Congress in session when they come back in September,” says Rano. “Math-wise, it’s unlikely.” Instead Rano predicts we’ll see a repeat of last year’s farm bill fallout, where Congress extended the 2008 farm bill.

But if a farm bill does reach the President’s desk, Pacelle of the Humane Society suspects that King’s proposal won’t make the final cut. He noted that Debbie Stabenow, the Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and one of the two most important players in the farm bill process, is strongly opposed to the King amendment.

“I think that if sensible minds prevail,” he says, “it will be removed.”