Farm Animals - History

livestock laws law act

Humans have been farming animals for thousands of years, dating back to when animals were first domesticated. The ability to keep and control animals allowed people to turn their focus away from hunting and toward building civilizations. It also changed the fundamental attitudes that humans had about animals. Domesticated animals lost the status that their ancestors had as independent free-roaming creatures and became pieces of property.

Humans devoted a great deal of energy to maximizing the value of their new property. Control over breeding was particularly important. Certain animals were mated with each other to produce offspring that were even more valuable, while animals with undesirable properties were eliminated from the gene pool. Because farm animals were viewed as property, many decisions were based on logic and economics. Society at large benefited from the ready availability of meat and other products from this system.

Livestock Protection Laws

In the 1800s a number of laws were enacted in England and the United States to protect animals from abuse, neglect, and mistreatment by their owners. Some of these laws specifically included livestock, while others did not. Many state anticruelty laws excluded what they called "customary agricultural practices." These laws were often interpreted not to apply to animals raised for food.

The Twenty-Eight Hour Law of 1873 was the first federal law dealing with livestock welfare. It required that livestock being transported across state lines be rested and watered at least once every twenty-eight hours during the journey. At the time, livestock transport was done by rail, and as of 2003, the law had never been changed to reflect new methods of transport and was only enforced on railroad transport. The federal Animal Welfare Act was enacted in 1966 to provide protection for animals used for certain purposes, but the regulations enforcing the law specifically excluded livestock.

The major legislation of the twentieth century to affect livestock was the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958. The law required slaughter by humane methods at slaughterhouses subject to federal inspection. This meant that livestock had to be rendered insensitive to pain before being slaughtered. The act excluded chickens and all animals slaughtered using techniques associated with religious rituals. Enforcement of the act was turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Concern Grows

Farm animals received little more attention until a 1964 book by Ruth Harrison was published. Animal Machines described the brutality inflicted on livestock in Britain by the modern farming industry. In 1975 Peter Singer published Animal Liberation, which detailed similar problems on America's "factory farms." It was also during the 1960s and 1970s that the vegetarian movement gained momentum.

The plight of farm animals became a major issue with animal rights activists and welfarists. In the 1980s and early 1990s, several groups dedicated to livestock concerns formed, among them the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM), Humane Farming Association, Farm Sanctuary, and United Poultry Concerns. In the 2000s these and other groups work to publicize abuses that occur in the agricultural industry and achieve new legislation to protect farm animals.

Meat consumption, per capita in pounds, 1909–2003
SOURCE: Adapted from "U.S. per Capita Food Consumption (Meat)," in Food Availability, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, December 21, 2004, (accessed February 5, 2005)

Some of the major farm animal campaigns mounted by these groups in 2005 included:

  • Banning the slaughter of horses for food
  • Legislation for poultry to be covered under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act
  • Protecting animals at the slaughterhouse that have been injured during transport and are unable to walk (so-called downed animals)
  • Outlawing the keeping of veal calves and pregnant and nursing hogs in small iron crates so that they cannot move
  • Publicizing the abuse and mishandling of animals at slaughterhouses

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