MONTPELIER — House and Senate disagreement over an attempt to outlaw the cruel confinement of pregnant pigs doomed two agriculture bills at the tail end of the recently adjourned legislative session.
Lawmakers and a Shumlin administration official were disappointed the agriculture bills failed as a result of the gridlock, because it means the contents of the bills will have to wait until next year.
The legislation would have created a new maple syrup certification program, given the state Agency of Agriculture new authority to regulate formaldehyde on farms, and created clearer regulations for itinerant livestock slaughterers who travel to homes or farms.
The legislation’s undoing was an amendment Senate lawmakers wanted to attach to either of the two bills that would have banned so-called pig gestation crates, which are metal and concrete cages used to confine pigs during their four-month pregnancies.
Sows suffer greatly in the cages, proponents of the ban say, because the small crates prevent the pigs from turning around. Instead, they can do little more than stand up and lie down.
“It is a cruel form of agriculture, and it doesn’t belong in Vermont,” said Sen. Harold Giard, an Addison County Democrat and a chief backer of the ban.
But the House refused to go along with the Senate’s last-minute amendment.
Rep. Chip Conquest, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said House lawmakers hoped to let the state’s Livestock Care Standards Advisory Council delve into the topic and report back to the Legislature.
“Because we created the council for this purpose, we made it clear to them we wanted them to look at this and give us their report and recommendation before we did anything, and then we would take it up,” said Conquest, Democrat from Wells River.
Both sides say no one has introduced evidence showing Vermont farmers use pig crates. That means the Legislature could afford to wait for the council’s report, said Conquest.
“To me that’s another argument to say, ‘Let’s use the process we set up,’ because we’re not endangering any animals during this time period,” said Conquest.
Giard was “really disappointed” the agriculture bills didn’t pass, saying “we gave up a lot,” and he blames the House for not seeing the value of banning a brutal agricultural practice.
“The House was just too clueless to figure that out,” said Giard.
Other states and European countries have banned pig gestation crates, which some pork producers and veterinarians say prevent pigs from attacking each other in open pens.
Even though pig crates don’t appear to be used in Vermont, said Giard, the state should outlaw them and send a clear message.
“If you’re going to treat an animal in that fashion, stay out of Vermont,” said Giard. “We don’t want you.”
Chuck Ross, the state secretary of agriculture, wishes the bills passed but added that the state Agency of Agriculture won’t “dry up and blow away” without the legislation.
“Is it the end of the world? No. Would it have been better to pass it this year? Yes,” said Ross.
The formaldehyde language in the agriculture bill resulted from Franklin County residents who complained of illnesses they believe are caused by formaldehyde foot baths some dairy farmers use to treat cows with hairy foot wart.
The bill would have allowed the secretary of agriculture to regulate foot baths and chemicals on farms and granted the secretary the power to ban chemicals like formaldehyde if necessary.
The Vermont Department of Health continues its study of possible hazards created by formaldehyde on dairy farms.
Sarah Vose, a toxicologist with the health department, said tests performed earlier this year showed detectable levels of the formaldehyde right near the foot baths.
“We found it in the air where it was directly being poured into containers or the foot baths,” said Vose.
But monitoring equipment worn by farm workers did not show chemical at detectable levels, said Vose.
Formaldehyde also ends up in manure pits, said Vose, and another test underway this month is examining formaldehyde levels inside and outside private homes on farms before, during and after manure spreading.
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