AWI Issues New Report on the State of Legal Protections for Farm Animals

It should be a given that farm animals are protected from cruelty and needless suffering; from being warehoused in cramped, dark living spaces devoid of stimulation or even the ability to move; and from having beaks or tails cut off without anesthesia. Unfortunately, under the current legal framework, these basic assumptions do not hold.

AWI recently reviewed federal and state laws pertaining to the treatment of farm animals in its report Legal Protections for Animals on Farms. The report pinpoints where and how current protections are lacking for farm animals and paints a clear picture of the current legal status of the 9 billion land animals killed each year for food in the United States.

Presently, animals on farms have zero federal laws dedicated to ensuring they are not raised in an inhumane manner. State laws provide slightly more protection from abuse and poor living conditions, but are still not enough to ensure farm animals are afforded a life worth living. While anti-cruelty laws may protect farm animals from situations that no reasonable farmer would defend (such as kicking “downed” animals), 37 states have “common husbandry practice” exemptions to anti-cruelty laws—meaning that any practice the industry deems routine is exempt under the law.

Over the past decade, advocates have tried to chip away at these common but cruel husbandry practices by promoting legislation prohibiting some of the worst abuses on factory farms. In some cases, these efforts have met with success: Four states now regulate tail docking of cattle, eight limit the use of gestation crates for pregnant pigs, seven limit the use of restrictive crates for veal calves, and four prohibit barren battery cages for egg-laying hens.

The impact of these state laws on farm animals is mixed. Anti-confinement laws have helped shine a light on factory farming methods. Additionally, these laws (or the threat that such laws may pass) likely put pressure on the industry to address cruel farming practices: tail docking and veal crates are being voluntarily phased out by the industry and several large companies are phasing out gestation crates. Unfortunately, reforms don’t often reach the states where they are needed most—and the industry is most powerful. At present, legislation limiting the more abusive animal husbandry practices is far more prevalent in states that do not have large numbers of farm animals—zero, in some cases.

Not surprisingly, the push for farm animal welfare protection has created a backlash from the agriculture industry. In an effort to stifle criticism, the industry is aggressively pushing to criminalize undercover investigations on factory farms across the country. States are also delegating authority over farm animal welfare to state livestock boards, often to give the appearance of oversight while thwarting efforts to improve farm animal welfare in the state.

Farm animals are among the most abused animals in the world. Legal Protections for Animals on Farms details the benefits and limitations of using the law to improve their lives. The report is available on AWI’s website at