California’s ballot initiative to improve conditions in factory farms has already led to a whole lot of “unintended consequences”—even before the state’s voters get a chance to enact this “sweeping” animal welfare legislation. It’s pitted vets against vets in a battle over what’s good for the animals, the industry and consumers.

Proposition 2, “Standards for Confining Farm Animals” is California’s not-so-elegant bow to the notion that animals must be given room to maneuver. By 2015, it would increase the space allotment for every animal housed in sow gestation pens, overcrowded poultry facilities and veal crates, among others.

According to the Proposition’s verbiage:

The purpose of this Act is to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

How can anyone speak out against THAT?

Yet a splinter group of the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) managed to do just that. These agriculturally-minded vets are angered that the voters of California will be given the opportunity to vote on something they may know nothing about. They felt so strongly about this issue they found it necessary to split from the CVMA, which supports of Proposition 2.

These dissenting vets argue that Proposition 2’s mandates, though they’d be phased in over the next 7 years, are unfair to the agriculture industry and unwise when it comes to changing the animal welfare practices many consumers care about.

In a carefully worded statement the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) agreed with them—sort of. Beware the unintended consequences of Proposition 2 was the ominous warning:

"The AVMA believes Proposition 2, 'Standards for Confining Farm Animals,' is admirable in its goal to improve the welfare of production farm animals; however, it ignores critical aspects of animal welfare that ultimately would threaten the well-being of the very animals it strives to protect."

I was reading through other online animal offerings this past week when I came across this issue on Dr. Eric Barchas’s Dogster Blog. On it, he lambasted the AVMA for this seemingly pro-business statement (which appears to support the agriculture industry but actually does not officially oppose the legislation). Dr. Barchas’s strongly worded post proves how very contentious Proposition 2 has become among veterinarians.

Dr. Gail Golab, the AVMA’s animal welfare czarina, responded with what I felt was an appropriate statement explaining why the AVMA is in a position to promote caution when considering Proposition 2. Here’s an excerpt:

The AVMA acknowledges and agrees that the behavioral needs Proposition 2 attempts to address are important, but we also recognize that other needs of animals must be considered in parallel. To protect animal welfare you need to establish guidelines for housing animals that take ALL factors into account. Unfortunately, Proposition 2 doesn’t do that. In addition, depending on how its language is ultimately interpreted, Proposition 2 could potentially prohibit the adoption of housing systems that might represent the best presently available solution to fulfilling a range of criteria for good animal welfare. For example, it is not clear whether use of enriched cages would be permissible under Proposition 2—such systems are showing promise both in research and in practical application.

It’s my view that the AVMA’s points on California’s Proposition 2 are rational and thoughtful. The initiative does NOT address the what-ifs and vagaries of housing animals under humane conditions.

Is the AVMA effectively supporting industry by using a convenient excuse of the legislation’s shortcomings? Maybe so. The AVMA has a huge range of veterinary views it needs to represent. It wouldn’t surprise me if it took a qualified stance on this or any other agriculture-related welfare legislation. The AVMA is just never going to be able to represent ALL our views fully. It’s ultimately hampered by its membership’s diversity.

What’s MY take?

Proposition 2 is inadequate as it’s currently written. It needs more teeth. It needs to address animal needs with more specific recommendations on what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

For example, if sows ultimately fare better in gestation cages than in slightly larger enclosures (where they can just barely move around) but do MUCH better in larger pens, does this legislation address that? No it doesn’t. It forces the producers to select the less expensive of two alternatives, the less costly but worse-for-sows approach. That’s not welfare. That’s just stupid regulatory non-thinking.

Nonetheless, I’d vote for Proposition 2 if I lived in California. I’d do so happily because ultimately, I believe this initiative is a referendum on how strongly the public feels about how the animals it eats are treated.

I’d do so because 2015 is a long way away—and because that gives the state some wiggle room to amend its approach as needed.

I’d do so because I couldn’t bear knowing that anyone might interpret my vote as a curtsy to industrial animal agriculture.

Do I wish the AVMA could think bigger and set aside “science” for the sake of greater expediency in achieving welfare changes? I do. I think it would be a courageous move if they supported Proposition 2.

For now, though, I’ll just have to settle for knowing the AVMA seems to be doing the best it can given the limitations of its organizational makeup. And vets will just have to get more comfortable knowing that the inter-professional squabbles between different factions within our ranks are likely to get louder as time goes by.