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Nation’s eyes on Colorado meat fight

Proposed 2022 ballot initiative would criminalize artificial insemination and other ranching practices.

Tim Hearden

April 8, 2021

6 Min Read
A sign on the side of a cattle truck promotes beef during one of numerous rallies in Colorado in support of “Meat-In Day” on March 20.Colorado Cattlemen's Association

Ranchers throughout the West and around the nation are keeping a close eye on a proposed Colorado animal-cruelty initiative that cleared a key procedural hurdle April 7 but faces an uphill battle.

Animal-welfare advocates are trying to place the Protect Animals from Unnecessary Suffering and Exploitation (PAUSE) initiative on the ballot in November 2022. Critics say the measure would ban artificial insemination and other commonly accepted veterinary and animal care practices in Colorado and would ban the slaughter of livestock that have not yet lived more than one-quarter of their anticipated lifetime, which for cattle is about five years.

A state board on April 7 affirmed its earlier approval of title language, clearing the way for backers to start gathering the 125,000 signatures they’ll need to put Initiative 16 before voters next year. Opponents including the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association plan to appeal the Title Board’s decision to the state Supreme Court on the grounds that the initiative includes more than one element.

“It covers both the harvest of animals as well as the animal welfare issue,” CCA executive vice president Terry Fankhauser told Farm Progress. “We also think the language in the title is misleading. It discusses sexual acts with animals, but what it’s limiting is much broader.”

Definition of sexual act

Specifically, the proposal would expand the state’s definition of a sexual act with an animal to include “any intrusion or penetration, however slight, with an object” and remove an exemption for “accepted animal husbandry practices.” Under the initiative, practices like artificial insemination and castration would be considered a sex act with an animal.

The initiative’s proponents say the goal is to reduce animal cruelty and ensure all animals are treated fairly while reducing suffering, reports KOAA-TV in Pueblo, Colo. But ranchers say the changes would put them out of business.

“Clearly what it’s intended to do is harm or destroy animal agriculture in Colorado, or open the door to that,” Fankhauser said.

Related: Colorado ag unites to celebrate livestock industry

The initiative was thrust into the spotlight amid a controversy that erupted when Colorado Gov. Jared Polis designated March 20 as “Meat-Out Day,” encouraging residents to consider plant-based diets to combat climate change. The proclamation ignited a fury among agricultural groups and rural lawmakers in Colorado and neighboring states.

More than 35 cities and counties signed proclamations to promote the importance of agriculture in the Centennial State, designating March 20 as “Cattlemen’s Day,” “Meat-In Day” or other similar designations. With more than 75 events plus countless restaurant and retailer specials, meat was on the menu and tables around the state. The CCA reported that more than 25,000 people were offered complimentary barbecue meals, including more than 1,200 “food-insecure” Denver residents.

Iowa and Nebraska

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts set March 20 as “Meat On the Menu Day,” noting that ag is his state’s No. 1 industry and beef is its largest segment of production. “While meat is one of the most nutrient-dense foods you can eat, there are radical anti-agriculture activists that are working to end meat production and our way of life here in Nebraska,” Ricketts said.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds proclaimed April as “Meat on the Table Month,” and encouraged Iowans to support the livestock industry through meat consumption and purchases. Ricketts and Reynolds are Republicans, while Polis is a Democrat.

Related: Iowa and Nebraska show support for beef producers

Shelby Wieman, a spokeswoman for Polis, sought to downplay the significance of the “Meat-Out” declaration by noting that the state issues “hundreds of proclamations a year” at the request of various groups, businesses and special organizations, the New York Times reported.

“Gov. Polis is a strong supporter of Colorado jobs in the meat industry and was just in Greeley and Fort Morgan, where the state partnered to provide the lifesaving vaccine to meat-processing workers,” she told the Times, adding that “the previous administration issued a similar proclamation in 2011.”

However, Polis has come out against the PAUSE initiative, arguing it would hurt Colorado and destroy jobs, the Sterling Journal-Advocate reported. Other state officials have voiced opposition, too.

“CO's farming & livestock businesses are the backbones of CO rural communities,” state Attorney General Phil Weiser tweeted recently. “This measure is not based on science and will raise food prices for us all; worse yet, it will cost rural jobs & devastate communities. I will be fighting against it.”

Similar measures elsewhere?

Despite the stiff opposition, livestock industry professionals around the country fear that Initiative 16 could inspire similar measures elsewhere, and potentially interfere with interstate commerce.

Related: California’s Prop 12 Supreme Court challenge supported by 20 states

Recently, 20 states filed an amicus curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting a petition filed by the North American Meat Institute challenging the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 12, which imposes space requirements regarding breeding pigs and veal calves within the Golden State.

Approved in 2018, Prop. 12 reaches beyond the state’s borders by prohibiting the sale of uncooked pork or veal from animals housed in ways that do not meet California’s requirements, regardless of where it is produced. NAMI and other critics argue the initiative creates a barrier to trade by imposing obligations on out-of-state competitors in an effort to assist local producers.

Oregon and Washington in 2019 passed legislation phasing out battery cages and banning the in-state sale of products from battery cage systems, and Utah this year approved legislation phasing out battery cages. Numerous other states have passed varying restrictions on animal confinement, notes the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

On Initiative 16, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association is letting the Colorado group lead the opposition effort but is “playing a supporting role to their efforts,” spokesman John Robinson said in an email. The California Cattlemen’s Association is aware of the initiative but has been more focused in recent months on addressing wildfire issues, communications director Katie Roberti said.

“We don’t anticipate anything on the immediate horizon like this in California but will continue to watch and monitor both,” Roberti said in an email.

‘Anything can pass’

In the meantime, a coalition of Colorado farm groups has gone on a media blitz to defeat the PAUSE initiative, explaining animal husbandry practices and reassuring residents that ranchers care about the humane treatment of livestock.

“Anything can pass,” Fankhauser said of the initiative. “If the art is who has the most money and who gets the best language, this could certainly pass.

"But I think people understand it fairly easily and are wanting to learn more about it, so I think we’ve got a good place," he said. "It only takes a few minutes for people to understand this is ludicrous.”

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