In a unanimous decision, the court struck down the New Jersey Department of Agriculture's regulations exempting all routine husbandry practices as "humane," and ordered the agency to readdress many of the state-mandated standards for the treatment of farm animals.
Many states have an exemption to their cruelty code for "routine" or "commonly accepted" practices which leaves animals confined in factory farms unprotected from abuse.
In 1996, the New Jersey Legislature directed the NJDA to develop appropriate "standards for the humane raising, keeping, care, treatment, marketing, and sale of domestic livestock."
Eight years later, on June 7, 2004, the agency finalized regulations that specifically authorized many cruel farming practices and gave blanket protection to all common agriculture practices.
A coalition of humane organizations, farmers, veterinarians, environmental and consumer groups, led by Farm Sanctuary filed the lawsuit in 2004, alleging that the NJDA failed to establish standards of treatment of farm animals that are "humane" as required by the Legislature.
The beaks of most hens are trimmed to reduce feed costs. Part of hens' beaks are sliced off with a hot blade with no pain relief. (Photo courtesy HSUS)
"This is a major victory for farm animals in New Jersey, and will pave the way for better protections of farm animals nationwide," said Gene Baur, president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary.
"Setting a legal precedent in a unanimous vote that clarifies that commonly used practices cannot be considered humane simply because they are widely used will build on our momentum in challenging the cruel status quo on factory farms," he said.
In addition to striking down the agency's exemption for "routine husbandry practices," the Court further held that tail docking could not be considered humane, and the manner in which mutilations without anesthesia including castration, de-beaking and de-toeing could not be considered humane without some specific requirements to prevent pain and suffering.
The Court made clear that the decision to permit these practices as long as they are done by a "knowledgeable person" and in a way to "minimize pain" could not "pass muster."
Said Katherine Meyer of the public interest law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, "Having the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously recognize that the mutilation practices commonly used in the industry - cutting off the beaks and toes of live animals without anesthesia - is painful to these animals is an important milestone in educating the public at large about these practices and the need for reform."
Hogs are raised on a factory farm. (Photo courtesy USGS)
Although the court noted that these practices are controversial and that downed animals "suffer greatly," it found the record on appeal insufficient to warrant striking the regulations at this time.
The decision comes amid a nationwide campaign to phase out these practices. The plaintiffs will push the NJDA to abandon them when the regulations are revised.
In April, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released the results of a two and a half year study that supports a phaseout of common factory farming practices such as the use of gestation crates, farrowing crates, tethering, forced feeding, tail docking, and other body-altering procedures that cause pain.
Florida and Oregon have outlawed gestation crates, and Arizona and Colorado have outlawed both gestation and veal crates.
An anti-confinement initiative on California's November 2008 ballot. If approved by voters, Proposition 2 would outlaw gestation crates for breeding pigs, veal crates for calves and battery cages for egg-laying hens in the nation's largest agricultural state.
"This decision will protect thousands of animals in New Jersey, and also calls into question some of the worst factory farm abuses practiced throughout the country," said Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president of animal protection litigation for The Humane Society of the United States. "All animals deserve humane treatment, including animals raised for food."
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