“Fur farms in the U.S. are the only sector of animal agriculture unregulated by the federal government,” charges People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. And it’s no throwaway statement either, making it onto PETA’s list of Nine Shocking Fur Facts. When presented with no context, the casual reader will conclude that US fur farming is unregulated, period. But this could not be further from the truth.
The trick employed by PETA here relies on the fact that most readers will only see “unregulated by the government”, and not even register the word “federal”.
In common with all livestock in the US, almost every aspect of furbearers’ lives comes under the jurisdiction of state departments of agriculture, not the federal government. State departments of agriculture are, of course, still government bodies, and love regulating just as much as the federal government. So are fur farms regulated by government? You bet they are, but – like most of animal agriculture – mostly by state and municipal governments.
Where the federal government does get involved in livestock production is in regulating the slaughter of animals raised for food, because there are human health concerns. Since farmed mink and fox are not produced or sold for human consumption, their production (including euthanasia) is mostly the responsibility of state governments.
That said, it’s still not true to say that fur farms are completely exempt from federal regulation. While the federal government largely delegates implementation of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to states, these are still federal laws, and fur farms must comply just like any other livestock operation.
Working with Government
Some opponents of fur take a different tack when trying to create the impression that US fur farming is unregulated. Fur farms, they say, just follow standards developed by the industry itself – a case of the fox guarding the chicken coop. While it’s true that the industry places great importance on its own standards, that does not mean that farmers can do whatever they want.
First, it’s important to understand that having industry standards is totally normal. In American agriculture, fur farmers were pioneers in developing such standards, but today every livestock sector has them. They have some important functions.
Standards are a basic tool for an industry that is committed to policing itself. This relieves some of the burden on government which typically does not have the resources to conduct regular inspections of every small farm, and may visit only when a complaint has been filed.
Standards also help farmers improve their operations because they incorporate the findings of research in areas where the industry is the recognized authority. In the case of fur farming, these include nutrition, housing and disease control (bio-security).
Standards also provide a buffer against attempts – for example by animal activist groups – to introduce arbitrary regulations that are based on ideology rather than scientific research.
However, the important point here is that industry standards are not alternatives to government regulations. Rather, they complement and build on them. This is why regulations governing livestock farming typically evolve through consultation between government and industry stakeholders, while taking advice from independent experts.
A good example of how this works is in the area of animal welfare. Animal-welfare statutes are many and varied, covering everything from mistreatment and neglect, to intentional cruelty. Such statutes, however, can be short on specifics; it is neither possible nor desirable to regulate every scenario that might face every kind of animal. So this is an area where specific industry standards – for example concerning nutrition and housing – can complement and build on more general government statutes.
Thus, in the case of mink farms, industry association Fur Commission USA (FCUSA) has a certification program which includes, among many other requirements, a minimum size for mink pens. By setting this standard, and enforcing it through inspections by independent veterinarians, the industry complements more general government animal-welfare statutes.
Euthanasia is another example. Again, rather than developing statutes from scratch for every kind of livestock, states refer to recommendations of the American Veterinary Medical Association in its AVMA Guidelines for the Euthanasia of Animals. FCUSA takes the same recommendations on euthanasia and incorporates them in its industry standards. In other words, while it can be said that the industry “sets its own standards” on euthanasia, these standards are, in fact, based on the same recognized authority as states rely on; they effectively respect state statutes while adapting them to the specific characteristics and needs of fur farming.
In summary, US fur farms are regulated just like any other livestock sector, except that they are not subject to federal regulations for food animals. And industry standards are not alternatives to state statutes; they interpret and complement them. Therefore, PETA’s “shocking” assertion that fur farming is “unregulated by the federal government” is as meaningful as saying, “Michael Jordan doesn’t wear Under Armor shoes!” Of course he doesn’t. He wears Nike.