A year ago Proposition 2 in California was approved by voters and spelled the end to the California egg industry because it caused the abolition of common production practices. Voters in other states have spoken out, and in some caused significant changes in the way livestock are raised. Last week Ohio voters approved Issue 2 on the ballot, which was a pro-active move by the Ohio livestock industry to pre-empt an effort by the Humane Society of the US to change livestock production practices in that state. The public debate over what livestock producers should and should not do to raise their animals has barely begun.

The heavily financed Humane Society of the US (HSUS ) has been a strong proponent in the debate that has caught the public ear in many states, as well as the attention of lawmakers, and petition passers. Agricultural economists F. Bailey Norwood and Jayson Lusk at Oklahoma State University believe the livestock production industry has not taken enough of a role in the debate and the industry has suffered from that reluctance. Writing in the current issue of Choices Magazine, Norwood and Lusk believe the debates will “play out in the ballot box, state and federal legislatures, and courtrooms.”

The economists say the animal welfare groups have focused on farm animals and how they live, and the livestock industry has focused less on the farm, and has said the activists want to convert everyone to veganism and that the activists have not used scientific evidence but are waging the debate to elicit public emotion. And the economists contend those latter issues are “red herrings.” The Oklahoma State researchers say the claims of the activists “are carefully documented by scientific studies while also appealing to emotions with pictures and videos of miserable-looking animals in small cages. These publications go into great detail documenting and articulating practices that they believe the public will deem undesirable. Although some of these pictures and videos do not represent the average farm, they are real events and that matters.”

Economists Norwood and Lusk point to the United Egg Producers, which have defended their welfare standards are based on “sound” science whereas the farm practices sought by HSUS are not. They say the UEP standards for egg production are based on recommendations of an independent scientific committee, but the HSUS has presented other scientific studies saying cage free eggs are superior to cage eggs in terms of animal welfare. The economists say their own research found that “consumers believe confining animals to small cages is inhumane and that they believe cage-free systems provide higher levels of well-being.” Labeling the livestock industry arguments as “the red herring strategy,” the economists contend that consumers are asked to disregard those beliefs and accept that “science” shows animal do not suffer in cages. They acknowledge that any change will cost money and rhetorically ask if consumers will pay the cost, which they say is the real debate that should be held.

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