There are many cruelties associated with the large, industrial "factory farms" that intensely confine animals in tiny crates and cages. In addition to cruel confinement, farm animals are often subject to neglect and a multitude of other inhumane practices. Unfortunately, it is difficult to prosecute producers that mistreat animals. Twenty-five states exempt "normal husbandry practices" or "standard agricultural practices" from their cruelty statutes. The result: if a farmer is investigated for abusing farm animals, he or she has only to say "but everybody else is doing it" and he/she will be let off scot-free.
Even in those states where such practices are not exempt, it is rare that a local prosecutor will file charges against a producer for acts of cruelty that are prevalent in the industry. Most prosecutors are elected officials who are reluctant to upset the farming communities in their rural districts. Even when a prosecutor is willing to risk the ire of the community and file criminal charges against a producer for abusing animals, they find it difficult to find "expert" witnesses to testify against such abuse. Veterinarians from agricultural schools often come forward to testify in favor of the farmers, knowing that many of the grants for their schools originate from the agricultural industry. Judges in these rural communities frequently have strong agricultural roots and are reluctant to find a farmer guilty of abusing animals. A farmer in Ohio was recently acquitted (found not guilty) of strangling his old, sick and infirm sows by hanging them with chains from a front-end loader. The judge in this case was once a farmer himself. He was also an elected official, and no doubt very aware of the 100-plus farmers who showed up in his courtroom both days of the trial to support the accused farmer.
Fortunately, public sentiment is changing as more and more cruelty cases involving farm animals are exposed in the media. This awareness and growing concern about the humane treatment of farm animals is forcing public officials to take farm animal abuse more seriously. A worker at a dairy farm in Ohio was recently charged with 12 counts of cruelty for beating and abusing numerous cows and calves.
More importantly, several states have enacted laws to ban cruel confinement systems, either through the legislative process or via citizens' referendums. As of this writing (summer 2010), there is a proposed ballot initiative in Ohio to address the worst abuses of farm animals in the state, including cruel confinement practices. Currently, veal calves are chained in small crates without enough room to turn around; sows are confined in gestation crates only a few inches wider and longer than the sows themselves; and egg-laying hens are jammed into tiny "battery" cages with less space, per bird, than the size of a regular 8.5"x11" sheet of paper. The proposed Ohio measure would require that animals have adequate space to stand up, lie down and turn around freely without any impediments, including tethers, and without touching the sides of their enclosures. Ohio is one of the largest agricultural states in the country, and if the ballot initiative passes there, it could be the beginning of the end of confining farm animals in crates and cages. Also as of this writing, seven states (CA, FL, AZ, OR, CO, MI, ME) have similar legislation.
Ultimately, this issue might be resolved through a combination of legislation and the evolution of people's buying habits. More and more retailers are responding to public concern about how the animals they eat are raised, and the demand for humanely produced food is growing. For instance, Wal-Mart recently announced that it will buy eggs for its private label only from free-range chickens. As consumer awareness about the treatment of farm animals increases, we are confident that cruel confinement systems will gradually be eliminated.