Contrary to media coverage, a series of amendments to animal welfare regulations in New Zealand do not represent a victory for advocates of legal status for livestock.

News flash: Animals are now “sentient beings,” at least in New Zealand.

That may seem like an ominous step in achieving formal legal status for livestock — because the ultimate goal of animal activists is turning cattle, pigs and poultry into litigants — as well as pets and research animals.

And the media, bless their hearts, have been quick to play up on that theme.

The Independent newspaper in Great Britain, as an example, headlined its report on the passage of the bill as, “Animals are now legally recognized as ‘sentient’ beings in New Zealand.”

The new legislation, actually a series of amendments to the Animal Welfare Act of 1999, also includes a ban on the use of animals for cosmetic testing, which prompted the Wanganui Chronicle newspaper in Auckland to publish an editorial titled, “Cosmetic test ban a great moral win.”

Is this a great win for advocates of legally secured animal rights?

Not really. In fact, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of a legal breakthrough have been greatly exaggerated.

Not to mention, as the Wanganui Chronicle noted in its commentary, “There is no evidence that any such [cosmetic] testing . . . had taken place in New Zealand for some years, so this was a victory for principle. We will outlaw something that doesn’t happen, but is still wrong.”

Legislators everywhere love passing tough-sounding laws that have minimal impact on society, but that play well on the campaign trail, and elected officials in New Zealand are no different.

Here’s what the new amendments actually require.

The revised Animal Welfare Act now stipulates that it is necessary to “recognize animals as sentient,” and animal owners must “attend properly to the welfare of those animals.”

Did you notice the wording in that excerpt? “Animal owners” must provide for the welfare of the property they own.

If animals were actually being accorded legal status — referencing the tired and tedious analogies to human slavery — then the law could not refer to people as “owners.” Nobody can “own” another “person,” if animals were truly being accorded that legal status.

These additions to a basic animal welfare law that is going on 20 years old merely addresses both the non-existent practice of using animals to test for toxicity in cosmetic formulations and reinforces basic animal care and humane handling practices already widely recognized legally and engrained in virtually all best practices codes for breeders producers, growers and farmers caring for food, farm and working animals—although animal advocates tried very hard to read more into the language of the amendments.

“To say that animals are sentient is to state explicitly that they can experience both positive and negative emotions, including pain and distress,” Dr. Virginia Williams, chairperson of New Zealand’s National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee, told The Independent. “The explicitness [of the wording] is what is new and marks another step along the animal welfare journey.”

No it’s not, and no it doesn’t.

None of these amendments represents either new restrictions on industry or a breach of the bright line that distinguishes people and animals under the law. A close reading confirms that rules are merely an updated codification of the expectations already in place for anyone who owns a domesticated animal.

For example, the new amendments “require owners of animals, and persons in charge of animals, to attend properly to the welfare of those animals,” which means, according to the exact statutory language, that they must “provide proper and sufficient food proper and sufficient water.”

That hardly constitutes some sort of legal breakthrough.

A troubling side issue

There is, however, one troubling aspect of the amended law, and that is contained in the blanket ban on the use of animals to ensure the safety of health and beauty products. According to one of the amendments, “A person must not use an animal in any research, testing, or teaching that is for the purpose of developing, making or testing a cosmetic; however, it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended to commit the offense.”

In other words, if the authorities find some rats or mice on the premises of a laboratory handling the typical ingredients used in making cosmetics, they’re under arrest, no matter what the intentions or motivations of the participants might be.

Again, as the media have reported, there is no such use of animals in all of New Zealand, but it’s a serious concern whenever legislators separate motive from consequences.

Beyond that one issue, though, the rest of the law reads pretty much like an animal handling manual developed by trade groups in the United States: Animal owners must provide for their care, treat them with respect and ensure their health and well-being.

Not because they’re suddenly “sentient creatures” — every responsible producer already acknowledges that — but because it’s good for business.

And good for the animals.

And simply the right thing to do.

Morally and otherwise.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator