The process of factory farming nearly 10 billion land animals per year is a risky business, but when something goes wrong it’s often taxpayers — not the corporations that produce America’s meat, milk, and eggs — who foot the bill.
Now, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) wants to make those corporations pick up the tab. On Tuesday, Vox can report first, Booker will unveil the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act, an ambitious bill to be introduced to Congress next week that would require large meat and egg producers to plan for and pay more toward disaster response.
“We’ve seen multiple recent crises that have shined a light on the threat that corporate meat producers and their web of factory farms represent to workers, animals, the environment, and rural communities,” Booker told Vox in an emailed statement. “Built by agribusinesses, the industrial livestock and poultry system is designed to maximize production — while externalizing risk and liability — to ensure corporate profits even when the system fails.”
Booker’s bill was inspired in part by one of the most vivid recent crises in the meat industry: the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the virus tore through the meatpacking workforce, some slaughter plants were forced to operate at reduced capacity or temporarily close down. That left slaughter-ready animals with no slaughterhouse that could take them.
Companies around the world had to deal with similar problems — inventory stuck with no workers or means to move them. Farmed animals, though, aren’t like rolls of toilet paper or cars that can simply be stored until they’re sold. Because meat producers had no contingency plan for their animals, nowhere they could take them until the bottleneck at slaughterhouses cleared up, the cheapest thing to do was to cull them — industry jargon for deliberately kill — en masse, often using ghastly methods.
The federal government then compensated many producers for 80 percent of each animal’s market price, plus the additional cost of killing and disposing of them.
Booker’s bill also includes measures to prevent injuries to animals and workers in meat processing plants, such as ending slaughter line speed increases. It would also ban the use of prison labor in mass cull events, among other reforms.
“The pandemic shined a light on how broken so many aspects of our food system really are — from meatpacking plants that became Covid hot spots and caused tens of thousands of workers to get sick and hundreds to die to the inhumane killing of millions of animals as brittle supply chains broke down,” Booker said. “As public awareness has increased, so have the calls for transitioning to a more humane and sustainable system, and this bill is a response to that.”
This pattern recurs seemingly every time the meat industry faces an economic or health crisis; this year‘s bird flu outbreak, for instance, has resulted in the culling of more than 50 million animals. Despite the horrors of Covid-19 for slaughterhouse workers and farmed animals, “we have not learned our lesson,” said Jake Davis, a Missouri-based agricultural policy expert and small farmer who raises pigs and grows vegetables. (Davis advised on the bill.) “We have not changed the way the system works, and we have not asked the industry to embed the risk to our food system that they create. Our federal agricultural policy is designed in such a way that the factory farm model gets all the benefits and none of the blame.”
The Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act, explained
In recent years, Booker has introduced a slate of legislation to protect meatpacking workers, aid independent farmers, and stop large agribusiness mergers. The Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act is the second big meat industry reform package from the senator, who has emerged as the foremost critic of factory farming in the US Senate. In 2019, he advanced the Farm System Reform Act — a wide-ranging bill to place a moratorium on new factory farms and phase out the largest existing ones — which picked up endorsements from congressional progressives including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). The Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act builds on those ideas, updating them for a post-Covid era in which the food system’s fragility, and its risks to workers and animals, have become ever more apparent.
If passed, the bill would set up a new office in the US Department of Agriculture that would collect annual fees from large meat producers to pay for more humane culling methods. It would also require meat producers to pay for costs associated with disposing of animal carcasses and cleaning up affected sites, much of which is now covered by federal dollars, though it wouldn’t affect the programs that pay out producers for the loss of the commercial value of culled animals.
It would also require factory farm operators to submit disaster preparedness plans to the new office, including for natural catastrophes like hurricanes. (North Carolina’s 2019 Hurricane Florence killed 3.4 million chickens and 5,500 pigs, many of which drowned, and caused the large pits that store their manure to overflow and pollute waterways.)
The goal is to eliminate the need for the federal government to set up ad hoc programs that reimburse meat producers for losses any time they face emergencies, said Davis. Producers would be required to plan for alternative places for their animals to be kept safely in the event of a bottleneck at slaughterhouses. When culls do take place, Davis said, they wouldn’t be carried out using taxpayer money.
Booker’s bill would also prevent the industry from using the most inhumane methods to cull animals — something that animal advocates have been demanding since an undercover investigation in the spring of 2020 by the activist group Direct Action Everywhere found that Iowa’s largest pork producer was essentially cooking pigs to death with heaters. That method, known as “ventilation shutdown plus,” kills animals via heatstroke and would be restricted under the bill, as would the use of water-based foam (which is widely employed to suffocate poultry) and poisoning pigs with sodium nitrate. The group Veterinarians Against Ventilation Shutdown, one of the foremost critics of culling animals with heatstroke, has endorsed the bill.
Ventilation shutdown and foaming are exceedingly cruel and largely considered unacceptable if not illegal in the European Union, yet the US poultry industry has relied on them to contain this year’s bird flu.
The bill also directs the Department of Labor to enforce new protections for farm workers involved in emergency response. It would ban as well the use of prison labor in disaster response. (Last year, an incarcerated man in Colorado working on a cull operation became the first American to contract the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu.)
The legislation would also require poultry producers to pay severance to staff members and provide them with health care for two years following a disaster, an important protection for the workers who conduct the harrowing mass culls. And it includes provisions aimed at improving conditions for contract chicken farmers, or “growers” — a near-universal work arrangement in the chicken industry in which large meat producers outsource the work of raising animals to smaller farmers, many of whom live in poverty. The bill requires the big industry players that actually own the animals — companies like Tyson — to pay growers for lost income if their contracts are canceled due to a disaster event.
“A hallmark of the way industrial animal ag works is transferring costs onto others, and the growers often bear the worst of these costs,” said David Muraskin, an attorney for Public Justice, a legal advocacy group that’s worked to advance the rights of agricultural workers and that has endorsed Booker’s bill. Although the bill is narrowly focused on making industry responsible for depopulation-related costs, he added, “it’s a really important step.”
The bill could close loopholes in America’s broken slaughter rules for animals and workers
Farmed animals receive almost no protection from cruel treatment under federal law, and the minimal laws that are on the books don’t cover the vast majority of farmed animals: chickens. The 1958 Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which is supposed to reduce suffering by ensuring that animals are rendered unconscious before slaughter, only covers mammals, not birds, even though poultry make up 98 percent of the nearly 10 billion land animals farmed every year.
Booker’s bill would end that exemption and ensure that birds are covered under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act within 10 years of his legislation’s enactment. This would phase out prevailing normal poultry slaughter methods in the US, which are often brutal: Birds are shackled upside down and moved down a conveyor belt, where they’re dragged through an electric water bath meant to stun them.
“Those birds are flapping, they’re scared, they’re upside down, they can’t breathe” in that position, said Frances Chrzan, federal policy manager for Mercy For Animals, a farmed animal welfare nonprofit that, along with the ASPCA, worked closely with Booker on the bill. Many birds panic and thrash about while on the conveyor belt, causing them to avoid the electric bath and end up slaughtered by the kill blade while still alive. Even then, the blade doesn’t get each bird, causing some to die during the final phase of slaughter when they’re dunked into a scalding tank of boiling water that removes their feathers. (Disclosure: One of the authors of this article, Kenny Torrella, worked at Mercy For Animals prior to Vox.)
Including birds in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act would lead to a shift toward controlled atmosphere stunning, Chrzan said, a method that stuns animals through gassing to ensure they’re unconscious prior to slaughter.
It’s not just how animals are slaughtered that Booker takes issue with, but the sheer speed at which it happens. Over the last few decades, the USDA has allowed some meatpackers to increase slaughter speeds “over significant objections from everyone involved,” Chrzan said, “workers, food safety [advocates], consumers, animal welfare advocates, everyone.” In an act of further deregulation, the USDA has also allowed pork producers to partially self-inspect slaughter lines and reduced the number of federally trained inspectors. Booker’s bill would end both programs. To mitigate worker and food safety issues in slaughter plants, the bill increases funding for OSHA and USDA inspectors.
The bill would also shorten the amount of time some species can spend in transit from the farm to the slaughterhouse — a miserable and deadly journey for many animals. According to an analysis by the Guardian, more than 20 million animals in the US die in trucks en route to slaughter each year, often due to weather extremes or physical trauma.
It’s humane policy. Does it stand any chance of passing?
Legislation to prevent cruelty to farmed animals is rarely raised in Washington, where meat functions as the “third rail” of politics. Consumers want the animals they eat to be treated well, but they also want abundant cheap meat — two irreconcilable goals.
Booker, who is vegan but has shied away from suggesting that Americans should forgo meat, has been one of the few members of Congress willing to champion meat industry reform. His bill comes at a time when the debate over meat’s effects on animals, workers, the environment, and public health is heating up and politicians are increasingly dragging meat into the culture war. That war often ends in a stalemate over what role consumers should play, whether that means cutting back on meat consumption or purchasing meat from producers that claim higher-welfare practices, though just how much better such animals are treated can vary widely. While individual consumer choice has a role in building a better food system, Booker’s bill provides a welcome reprieve from that largely dead-end debate by increasing safeguards in a loosely regulated sector.
“This bill would help ensure that those profiting from industrial agriculture also take responsibility for the true costs they currently impose on society,” said Patti Truant Anderson of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, an institute within the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health that advocates for food system reforms. The center endorsed the bill.
Cutting off disaster payments for large meat producers would also likely exacerbate the temporary price hikes consumers experience during emergencies, and reforms that improve animal welfare and make slaughterhouses a little less dangerous for their employees could make meat and eggs more expensive year-round. But “expensive” here is relative; meat is only so cheap because those abused to produce it — workers and animals — pay for it.
The price of meat is artificially cheaper than the full cost of producing it, due to a lack of regulation to protect farm and slaughterhouse workers, animals, and the environment. But it’s also cheap because federal policy acts as a kind of insurance for major meat producers, whether through the subsidizing of the crops that are fed to farmed animals or bailouts for disasters like bird flu, slaughter line slowdowns, or extreme weather. Removing some of that insurance, and making that insurance something big meat producers pay for, could help level the playing field for plant-based alternatives and give consumers a better appreciation of the costs borne by workers and animals to put cheap meat on our plates.
But the bill will almost certainly be a nonstarter in a Congress where agricultural states are overrepresented in the Senate and the meat industry holds major sway over policymaking. Even if it could pass as-is, enforcement would be challenging given the USDA’s contradictory charge of both promoting and regulating US agribusiness. Including birds in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and strengthening limits on slaughter truck transit times under the federal 28-hour law, for example, are great ideas, but both these laws are already weakly enforced as currently written.
Davis, the ag policy adviser who worked on the bill, acknowledged these obstacles. “Because of the agribusiness lobby, it will be an uphill battle for Sen. Booker,” he said. But he stressed Booker’s role as a coalition builder who helps novel ideas enter the mainstream.
Booker has, as Vox has reported, brought together advocates who don’t share the same ideas — some who want to end animal agriculture entirely and others, like Davis, who want to minimize its harms — but who can agree on common goals. And although Booker’s past legislation has faced extremely long odds, it has still influenced policy. His 2019 Farm System Reform Act, for example, proposed banning the use of tournament systems that pit contract growers against one another for pay; the Biden administration this year announced reforms to that same system after the Obama administration caved to industry pressure in his first term.
Booker “and others are building a movement that really sees a different food system in the future,” Davis said. If a Covid-like crisis were to hit the food system again, he argues, the bill could quickly go from aspirational to an agenda that lawmakers would want to move forward with. “It’s hard to know when an event in our future will shift all of our thinking to a place where the agribusiness lobby can no longer hide from the harms that they’re creating.”