WHAT COUNTRY has the most advanced animal protection legislation in the world? If you guessed the United States, go to the bottom of the class. The United States lags far behind all 25 nations of the European Union, and most other developed nations as well, such as Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. To gauge just how far behind the United States is, consider these three facts:
Together these last two points mean that any common farming practice is legal. If you hear farm industry lobbyists trying to tell you that there is no problem in the United States because unhappy animals would not be productive, ask them how it can be good for a hen to be kept with four or five other hens in a cage so small she couldn't stretch her wings even if she had the whole cage to herself.
To measure how far ahead other countries are, we can first look at British animal protection legislation. British law makes it illegal to keep breeding sows in crates that prevent them from walking or turning around -- the way in which about four out of every five US sows are kept. In Britain, law does not allow veal calves to be denied adequate roughage and iron, as is common in the United States to help produce the gourmet veal often served in restaurants.
Nevertheless, it is not Britain but Austria that has the most advanced animal protection legislation. In May 2004, a proposed law banning the chicken ''battery cage" was put to a vote in the Austrian Parliament. It passed -- without a single member of Parliament opposing it. Austria has banned fur farming and prohibited the use of wild animals in circuses. It has also made it illegal to trade in living cats and dogs in stores and deems killing an animal for no good reason a criminal offense. Most important, every Austrian province must appoint an ''animal lawyer" who can initiate court procedures on behalf of animals.
Why are Europeans so far ahead of Americans in protecting animal welfare? I doubt that it is because Americans are more tolerant of cruelty. In 2002, when the citizens of Florida were given a chance to vote on whether sows should be confined for months without ever having room to turn around, they voted, by a clear majority, to ban sow crates. Most Americans, though, have never had the chance to cast that vote. The animal movement in the United States has not succeeded in turning animal rights into electoral issues about which voters seek their candidates' views.
As a result, the American animal movement has shifted toward targeting corporations rather than the legislatures. For example, in 2001, the organization Viva! launched a campaign accusing Whole Foods of selling inhumanely raised duck meat. Whole Foods responded by exploring the issue and setting new companywide standards for raising ducks.
Other sets of standards will follow by 2008, Whole Foods plans to have in place a set of standards for all the species of farm animals it sells. By addressing an individual corporation, animal rights activists are hoping that other retailers will follow suit and this pressure will influence legislation changes in the United States.
Judged by the standards of other developed countries, over recent decades the United States has done little to improve the protection of the vast majority of animals. We should direct our energies to reducing the suffering of farm animals and put pressure on our corporations and our legislatures, both state and federal, to bring the United States at least up to the standards of the European Union in our treatment of animals.
Peter Singer's most recent book is ''In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave."