PLANT, EATS, and BARK: Acronym Wars and Congressional Fights Over Animals in August 2023

By ASI Board Member Thomas Aiello

August began with Jim McGovern, Democratic representative from Massachusetts, introducing the Peas, Legumes and Nuts Today (PLANT) Act. The potential law is designed to grow the plant-based food industry and spur the USDA to promote the export of plant-based products to other countries. McGovern noted that more than 55,000 US workers are employed in the plant-based sector, producing 4.5 billion dollars in annual revenue, but still American production may be eclipsed by that of Europe. The bill would shift American agricultural subsidies to help promote vegetable and nut production. As it stands, the USDA has supported the meat and dairy industries with roughly fifty billion dollars since the mid-1990s. “By putting farmers and their communities front and center as we grow the greatest plant-based sector in the world,” he explained, “we can create countless good jobs while showing the world what makes American agriculture so strong.” The bill is supported by, among others, the US Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. For more, see HERE.

At the same time, however, there is a debate in congress over the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression (EATS) Act, introduced by Roger Marshall, Republican senator from Kansas, and Ashley Hinson, Republican representative from Iowa. The EATS Act was introduced to counter the Supreme Court’s August 2022 decision in National Pork Producers Council and American Farm Bureau Federation v. Karen Ross, which validated California’s Proposition 12, banning the importation of pork produced through the use of gestation crates. The bill, supported by organizations like the National Pork Producers Council, is intended to end states’ ability to regulate food products for their citizens. The NPPC has argued that Proposition 12 does nothing to support animal welfare, and its congressional allies make an argument rooted in fears of potential trade wars between states. Meanwhile, however, many large animal processing companies have already started creating more Prop 12-compliant policies to ensure access to the country’s largest state. As of now, the debate continues. For more on the legislation and the fights for and against it, see HERE, HERE, and HERE.

In another congressional action, this one a bipartisan effort, Raphael Warnock, Democratic senator from Georgia, and Thom Tillis, Republican senator from North Carolina, introduced the Bring Animals Relief and Kibble (BARK) Act. The proposed law would amend the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which waives liability for donations to human charities. The BARK Act would extend a liability waiver to animal shelters, as well. “Every year, pet stores throw out surplus pet food, which could easily be donated to feed hungry pets in animal shelters,” said Tillis. “This commonsense legislation removes unnecessary bureaucratic restrictions that keep many pet stores from donating food to animal shelters. No shelter pet should have to go hungry when so many pet stores have a surplus of readily available food.” For more, see HERE.

At the state level, Oregon governor Tina Kotek signed two new bills, one to stop the sale of “puppy mill” dogs in pet stores, and another to ban the sale of cosmetics tested on animals. “Oregonians believe in a better world for animals,” said Kelly Peterson, Oregon state director of the Humane Society. “These measures mitigate suffering in puppy mills and animal testing laboratories, and help people keep their pets through challenging circumstances.” For more, see HERE.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a state with a decidedly different political climate than Oregon, the North Carolina Farm Bureau and the state’s attorney general are seeking a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court in an effort to get North Carolina’s ag-gag law reinstated. PETA and other animal rights groups have petitioned the high court to deny certiorari after the Fourth Circuit’s Court of Appeals enjoined state officials from applying the law, as an undercover farm investigation was “part of newsgathering [that] constitutes protected speech.” You can read the denial appeal HERE.

For more on additional and various court cases moving through the judicial system this month, see the Brooks Animal Law Digest, produced by the Brooks McCormick Jr. Animal Law & Policy Program at Harvard Law School, HERE. For state legislative issues related specifically to dogs and other pets, see the roundup produced by the American Kennel Club HERE.

The federal statues in particular present “animal people” with the trouble of dealing with policy in microcosm. All creatively named so as to produce acronyms designed to shorthand their policy prerogatives for the general public, the bills exist at the intersection of real concern for animals and the exigencies of (lowercase d) democratic and special interest politics. The PLANT and BARK Acts are designed as a benefit to animals, while the EATS Act demonstrates an active and unapologetic lack of concern for them. At the same time, it could be argued that the EATS Act is the most intellectually honest of the three, openly declaring that interstate trade policy and the convenience of hog farmers is more important than the lives of animals themselves. The PLANT Act would do wonders for the plant-based food industry, but at the same time would not in any way remove the federal government from the animal killing business. The BARK Act would make food donations to animal shelters possible, donations in particular from pet stores, but nowhere in the law is an acknowledgement that the pet food industry itself is based in its own appropriation of killed animals.

And so neither PLANT or BARK are perfect laws, but laws rarely are. Moral principles can exist outside of political compromise and the demands of human constituencies and special interests, but legislation cannot. Legislators push their work to the edge of what is acceptable to a broad base of the human public. Policy, then, is an incremental effort, and as incremental efforts, both PLANT and BARK would be inordinately helpful to desperate shelter animals and those seeking vegan alternatives to products dependent upon the killing of animals. An ideal scenario would be one wherein the PLANT Act subsidized the currently marginalized but increasingly vital plant-based pet food market, allowing the possibility that those donations facilitated by a successful BARK Act would keep shelter pets happy and healthy without further endangering the pigs and other farmed animals so unapologetically abused by the National Pork Producers Council. The legislative defeat of the EATS Act, supported by the NPPC, would only further the ideal, but, again, it would in no way diminish the number of pigs that farmers supported by the NPPC kill. It is always important when acknowledging the compromises necessary in the creation of public policy to remember that animal welfare is vitally important, but animal lives are even more important. So we should support legislative change where we can get it, but we can never be satisfied. It is only when we forget the lives of animals that are intentionally hidden from our view that the good becomes the enemy of the perfect. And both PLANT and BARK, while not perfect, are decidedly good.

Or, they will be, if they pass and if they are enforced with a broad-based interpretation. Policy is necessarily compromised by compromise, but it is often unnecessarily compromised by a lack of broad-based enforcement. That reality was brought home to many when the orca Tokitae, confined at the Miami Seaquarium, died at age 57 on August 18. Born in the waters off the coast of the Pacific northwest in the 1960s, Tokita was taken as a calf in a massive orca cull in the region in August 1970, often referred to as the Penn Cove roundup. Tokita spent more than fifty years in an eighty-by-thirty-five-foot tank in Miami and was scheduled to soon be released as a result of activism by both animal rights groups and the Lummi Nation, which knew her as Sk’aliCh’elh-tenaut. Her death only reinforced to many the problems with animal captivity as a form of entertainment. See, for more information, HERE and HERE.

The policy question that results is simple: where was the law to protect Tokita? Two years after the Penn Cove roundup, congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which made it illegal to “kill, hunt, injure or harass” any species of marine mammals. It is undeniable that Tokita was injured and harassed by captivity, but the Marine Mammal Protection Act never came to her rescue. A year after that law, and three after Penn Cove, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 provided federal protection for endangered species. Orcas were added to the endangered species list in 2005, and yet Tokita remained in harsh conditions that only further endangered her health and wellness. The International Whaling Convention was established in 1946, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITIES) appeared in 1973. They provided no aid for Tokita, either. (See HERE for an overview of whale protection regulations both nationally and internationally.)

And so as we watch policy developments in relation to animals, we must always remain vigilant and continue watching after the signatory pen is safely stored away. Whatever compromises are part of the policy making process, there need not be compromise in the act of enforcement. There is no danger to the nail when the hammer is locked away in a drawer. It is a reality that makes the legal efforts of PETA in North Carolina so important, that makes enforceable state actions like Prop 12 in California or the animal-tested cosmetics ban in Oregon significant parts of any broader vision of a workable public policy toward animals. There will always be more policy mountains to climb–or, to continue the metaphor, there will always be more hammers to find in the locked drawers of American hearts and minds when it comes to concern for animals. But the policy developments this summer seem to provide a possible positive momentum moving into the Fall.



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