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January 27, 2009

California Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez: Setting the Stage for Farm Animal Welfare Improvements

The Humane Society of the United States

Just a couple months after Californians overwhelmingly voted to pass Prop 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, there are more changes afoot in Sacramento. Thanks to the leadership of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, the Senate has a newly-reorganized Food and Agriculture Committee.

One of its top priorities will be to address the welfare of the state's millions of farm animals.

Senator Florez cited Prop 2 and The HSUS's January 2008 slaughter plant investigation as examples of the urgent need for reform. Sacramento-based HSUS chief economist Jennifer Fearing asked him a few questions about his plans for the committee and the future of farming in the nation's top agricultural state.

You were a strong Prop 2 supporter. Could you talk about why the measure was personally important to you?

I live among factory farms. If you look at California, probably half of our state's agriculture lands are in my Central Valley district.

We've seen this big movement, over the hundred years my family has lived in the area, from small farms to these mega ag centers. For example, in Bakersfield there are 312,000 human residents but 387,000 dairy cows. The rise in large CAFOs has caused many of us in the Central Valley to say, "Hey, there have got to be some limits."

Central Valley residents care about animal welfare--this isn't just an urban concern.

What role do you see the government playing in promoting the protection of farm animals?

Government has an important role to play in trying to find the right balance. We haven't delved into the California animal cruelty code as much as we should to ask what does it mean, how should it apply?

It strikes me that some animals are left out, at least where enforcement is concerned. By expanding the purview of the Senate Food and Agriculture committee, we hope to open up a venue to explore these issues and others. The public expects government to protect consumers from unsafe food and we've taken our eye off the ball and paid for it with food scares and recalls.

I am hopeful that we are now making farm animal welfare part of the discourse here in the state capitol.

Where do you see food policy and agriculture heading in California?

We are taking it back to the consumer—where the consumer is driving agricultural policy and not the industry. We're witnessing a return to earlier times when markets were driven by consumers' desire for local produce and to support local farmers. We're inviting consumers to the table again to tell us what they think about food production and distribution.

We in the legislature have been overly focused on how to assist agribusiness with production and profit. We haven't focused on safety, equity, nutrition. We are adding these components back into the policy discourse.

Really, what I want to see is the state catching up with consumers.

How would you like to see California, as the nation's top agriculture producer, lead the rest of the nation on these issues?

I would like to see California be an example for the rest of the nation. We can think progressively about sustainable agriculture even in the largest agricultural state in the union. I want to deal with issues like runoff, soil degradation, and pesticide use as food and ag issues, not just environmental and health policy issues.

We need a more cohesive policy approach and we've got just the leaders on the committee to accomplish that.

I also want California to lead on looking at the "forkprints" our food production, distribution, and consumption patterns leave when it comes to climate change, where California has already demonstrated its leadership. We need to incorporate and infuse these ideas into our agriculture discourse.

You're incorporating citizen feedback to help set policy. Tell us a little about why that's so important.

If you read agribusiness' press in reaction to the formation of the committee, they are seeing this as an opportunity to "educate" us and consumers about what they do. But they don't get it yet—it is really the reverse that we're after.

What can citizens tell us about what they want? Big Ag is solely focused on cheap and convenient food, but consumers are looking at quality and safety as important variables and are willing to pay an appropriate price for it. Consumers have to be the driving force.

Citizens will have a huge impact if they participate on our web site, and attend the oversight hearings we have planned for February and March.

Any final thoughts?

Prop 2 was a wake-up call in the state capitol. Big Ag has always ruled, and they don't lose much. I want to take advantage of Prop 2's momentum and strike a balance.

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