With a second turn at USDA, Tom Vilsack would have an opportunity to continue progress for animals, correct missteps
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is one of the federal agencies with the most impact on animal protection issues. Who heads it can make all the difference to the wellbeing of millions of animals, including those in puppy mills, roadside zoos, factory farms, laboratories, horse show rings and in illegal animal fighting operations. President Biden has named Tom Vilsack—who had the same job under President Obama—as his pick for USDA secretary, and as the confirmation process gets underway today, we look forward with optimism to working with Vilsack once again.
Vilsack’s last eight-year turn as agriculture secretary, although not perfect, stands in sharp contrast to that of his successor, and now predecessor, Sonny Perdue. During his four years as USDA chief, Perdue presided over a near-blackout of inspection records pertaining to the Animal Welfare Act and Horse Protection Act, leaving the public in the dark about how these laws were being enforced. (The records were restored three years later, but only after Congressional action.)
Enforcement of the AWA and HPA plummeted too. Some slaughterhouses were allowed to recklessly speed up line speeds with the pandemic raging, creating an animal welfare nightmare and a heightened risk for workers already working in overcrowded, excessively fast and dangerous production conditions in these coronavirus hotspots.
Most notably, Perdue’s USDA abandoned two critical rules that the agency had finalized under Vilsack. One would have strengthened animal welfare standards on organic farms. Another would have protected Tennessee walking horses and related breeds from the cruel practice of soring—the deliberate infliction of pain on the animals’ legs to get them to perform a gait called the “big lick” in show rings.
If Vilsack is confirmed, we are hopeful he will reorient the agency, beginning with reinstating the organics rule and the soring rule. In today’s hearing, he indicated his support for the organics industry and for looking at past rulemakings.
During the eight years Vilsack was USDA secretary, the agency made good progress for animals on many other issues too. It finalized crucial rules to prohibit the slaughter of downer calves—animals too sick or injured or weakened to walk to their own slaughter, and two important rules protecting animals in puppy mills. One required mills that sell puppies online or by mail, sight-unseen, to follow the same rules for licensing and inspections as breeders that sell to pet stores. The other implemented a law banning puppy imports for resale, preventing pet stores and other resellers from importing puppies from other countries (many of which are even more loosely regulated than our own). Before that ban, puppies often died on long, international flights on their way to pet stores.
During the Vilsack tenure, the USDA also demonstrated a fundamental commitment to funding and enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, the nation’s chief animal protection law. During the last few years under Vilsack, it was common for the agency to revoke the licenses of about 10 to 15 puppy mills that were not meeting AWA standards each year, while also suspending, warning and fining several of the worst puppy mills. In the Trump/Perdue era, that number had dropped down to nearly zero.
There were areas where Vilsack’s USDA failed to move, most notably in reining in the abuses perpetrated by Big Ag and factory farming. Billions of animals suffer immensely on thousands of factory farms in the United States. They are confined in tight spaces for their whole lives and slaughtered inhumanely. Conditions at factory farms also impact the safety of our food supply, pollute our water and air, and substantially increase the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the spread of influenza and other deadly pathogens.
This time round, we urge Secretary Vilsack to act more decisively to end the abuses perpetrated against farm animals by Big Ag. The changes we will be asking for include:
- Slowing down slaughter plant line speeds permanently.
- Prioritizing research and development of cultivated and plant-based meat alternatives.
- Providing financial support for farmers to go cage-free for egg-laying hens and crate-free for mother pigs.
- Promoting the use of Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS) at slaughterhouses to render birds unconscious before the kill line, reducing stress, injuries and pain and improving worker safety and food safety.
The Biden administration has already made a great start in this direction, by withdrawing, in its first week, a pending rule from the Trump era that would have allowed qualifying chicken slaughtering plants to accelerate line speeds without receiving waivers from USDA, and taking crucial actions to address climate change that threatens all animals. We look forward to reporting on even more progress in coming years and we wish Secretary Vilsack our best as the Senate confirmation process continues. If he gets the job, he cannot go wrong if he remains tuned in to the American public that is demanding, louder than ever, that all animals be treated more humanely, be they animals in puppy mills, in factory farms, in show rings, in zoos or in research laboratories.