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Lawsuit Targets Farm's Treatment of Sows

An activist group might learn at a hearing today whether it can proceed with its case against a pork producer.

June 14, 2005|Erica Williams | Times Staff Writer

California: home of unhappy sows?

That's the question at the heart of a lawsuit that pits an animal rights group against a Central Valley pork farm over the living conditions of pregnant pigs.

The suit, filed by Farm Sanctuary, which operates a shelter for rescued farm animals in Orland, Calif., has been wending its way through Los Angeles County Superior Court since September. In a hearing today, the group may learn whether it can proceed with its case, which seeks to apply the state's animal cruelty law to force Corcpork Inc. of Corcoran to stop housing its 9,000 pregnant sows in individual metal stalls.

Farm Sanctuary says the sows, weighing 400 to 600 pounds, can suffer bone loss, joint damage and even depression as a result of spending most of their lives in containers barely larger than themselves.

Corcpork, which supplies Clougherty Packing Co.'s Farmer John processing plant in Vernon, says the individual stalls keep the sows from injuring one another, which is a risk with group pens. The company is asking the court to throw out the Farm Sanctuary suit, slated to go to trial in September.

Although pork production represents a small fraction, about 0.1%, of the state's $30-billion agricultural industry, the case could set broad precedents.

First, attorneys on both sides say, the outcome could determine whether the 35-year-old anti-cruelty statute can apply to farm animals. In addition, the case could serve as a test of Proposition 64, a voter initiative passed last fall that set curbs on lawsuits against businesses.

Farm Sanctuary seeks to apply a provision of the anti-cruelty statute that makes it a misdemeanor to deprive an animal confined in an enclosed space of "an adequate exercise area." Sows in the 2-foot-by-6-foot crates can take two steps forward or backward at most and can't turn around or comfortably lie down on the concrete floors.

"If you did this to a cat or a dog you would be charged with cruelty," said Gene Bauston, president of Farm Sanctuary, a Watkins Glen, N.Y.-based group that claims 100,000 members. "But in the case of farm animals, we as a society have tended to look the other way."

Representatives of Corcpork and Clougherty, a subsidiary of Hormel Foods Corp. and maker of Dodger Dogs and other Farmer John meats, contend that the anti-cruelty law doesn't apply to farm animals and say the company's practices conform to industry standards.

Even if the anti-cruelty law did apply to farm animals, "it's not actually a violation of the statute because it isn't cruel," said Rachel Alexander, an Omaha-based attorney for Corcpork. "Putting them in the stalls actually accomplishes what the law intended -- to look out for the welfare of the animals."

Farm Sanctuary's campaign is one of several waged by animal rights advocates in recent years to challenge industrial farming practices around the state.

Last year, animal advocates claimed victory when the Legislature approved a ban on the force-feeding of ducks and geese to enlarge their livers to make foie gras. But a lawsuit challenging the California dairy industry's "Happy Cows" advertising campaign as misleading failed.

With its lawsuit against Corcpork, a 450-acre farming operation with about 90,000 pigs, Farm Sanctuary seeks to heighten awareness among consumers about how pork gets to their table. The anticipated distaste, it hopes, will pressure the industry to change its ways.

According to the complaint, scientific studies have shown that sows suffer physical effects, including locomotory and cardiovascular problems, from being so tightly confined. Psychologically, the complaint states, sows can develop depression, "expressed through behaviors such as bar biting, head waving, licking and so-called vacuum chewing, where the animals chew nothing."

Steve Duchesne, a spokesman for Corcpork, said that the way the company housed, fed and cared for its sows was "based on current science" and helped to minimize injury and sickness.

Farm Sanctuary, in addition to citing the anti-cruelty statute, accuses Corcpork of violating the state's unfair competition law by engaging in unlawful business practices.

But Corcpork plans to argue in court today that Proposition 64, approved by voters in November to curb frivolous lawsuits against businesses, bars Farm Sanctuary from bringing the lawsuit. The measure bans private parties from suing a business unless they were harmed personally and financially by the alleged misconduct.

"The problem is, an animal can't go to court," said Farm Sanctuary attorney Melissa B. Bonfiglio of Santa Monica. She contends that earlier court decisions clearly give her client the right to bring this lawsuit on behalf of the sows.

Courts have issued conflicting opinions in recent months about whether Proposition 64 applied retroactively to cases that were pending when it passed. In April, the California Supreme Court said it would review several cases with the intent of settling the issue.

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