Ohio voters this week approved a constitutional amendment that would not only address animal welfare in that state but create a new tactic aimed at taking control of the national debate.
They overwhelmingly passed a state constitutional amendment that would establish a 13-member Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. The board, which would include the state director of agriculture, veterinarians, consumers and a representative of the local humane society, would set standards for how farm animals in Ohio are treated.
The amendment counters efforts of the Humane Society of the United States, which has waged a state-by-state campaign to dictate how farm animals are treated. Voters in Florida and Arizona have already adopted initiatives aimed at dictating how laying chickens and hogs are treated.
Most recently, HSUS won a huge victory in California, where voters passed an initiative that has representatives of the $300 million-a-year egg industry worrying whether it can even continue to operate in the state. Worse yet, the requirements of the initiative are non-specific, meaning the industry doesn't know how to meet them.
After that, agricultural leaders in Ohio, including the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, sought a way to add balance to the debate. Instead of allowing HSUS to dictate the terms, the industry decided on a different tactic.
Instead of only reacting to what the critics said, they wanted to take a level-headed route. Hence, the constitutional amendment, which would take several key steps:
* First, it would ask Ohio voters not to dictate how farm animals are treated but to set up a board composed of experts, consumers and others to establish those rules. The board would have indisputable credibility.
* Second, because it is a constitutional amendment, the legislature cannot amend it, and it would require a much larger number of signatures to place an amendment on a future ballot.
* Third, no matter the outcome in Ohio, this tactic can be used as a blueprint in other states.
"We've tried to model this in a way that other states can look at it," Jack Fisher, executive vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, told The Associated Press.
The fundamental problem in states such as California, Oregon and Washington state is the initiative process has run wild. Ever since 1978, when Proposition 13 passed in California, measures that dictate tax rates, set state policies and make other laws have proliferated.
Some of them are good, and some are bad, but most include unintended consequences that neither the sponsors nor the opponents anticipated.
In California, for example, the vagueness of the initiative has members of the industry in turmoil as they try to determine how to meet the requirements.
With Ohio's approval of the constitutional amendment, one thing is certain: The Ohio Farm Bureau and the state's agricultural industry have paved the way for a tactic that will be a key ingredient in the debate over farm animal welfare: fairness.
That has been sorely missing in previous debates, to the advantage of the animal activists.