A few weeks ago, I wrote a specially commissioned article for a beef industry organization on the Center for Food Integrity's Animal Care Review Panel, which evaluates undercover videos of alleged animal abuse on U.S. farms. The panel consists of a veterinarian, animal scientist, and animal-husbandry ethicist, so these are very knowledgeable folks on livestock management. While they don't condone undercover reporting, these videos are being recorded and then released anyway. This is a way for the Center for Food Integrity to stand up for animal agriculture - by addressing these videos, through a professional, evidence-based lens, that could otherwise be very damaging to a largely uneducated public.
Just last week, I read that Tyson Foods is the latest company to launch an animal welfare program to monitor the treatment of animals at farms that supply the company. An independent committee mandates certain livestock management practices in the realm of human-animal interaction, worker training, and access to feed and water. The program is debuting with Tyson's hog suppliers and will expand to the cattle and poultry suppliers in time.
I don't know what to think of the animal welfare movement. There are a lot of conflicting messages out there. On one hand, activists seem to be out to end animal agriculture by manipulating the voting public into making it unlawful to continue common animal-husbandry practices that appear barbaric on the surface but are proven best-management practices from a veterinary and production management standpoint.
On the other hand, animal rights aren't a bad thing. Ethically, producers and processors should be treating fellow living beings with dignity. Practically speaking, producers and processors do better for their business if they treat their animals well. For example, dark cutters are animals that are stressed at slaughter, and their meat is less palatable. It stands to reason that the majority of producers and animal handlers are treating livestock with respect. But there are always exceptions to the rule. Not only that, but it's good to look at our current practices from time to time and re-evaluate whether they're still appropriate.
While agricultural researchers in the field continue to move animal-husbandry practices forward, animal rights activism seems to be forcing the issue to go quicker than the industry is accustomed to. Does it need to move that fast? I'm starting to think that animal rights activism, even the "extreme" activists like PETA and HSUS, do have some positive impact on the agricultural industry. The university research and corporate advances that we rely on for the most up-to-date information is working-it is-but not at the pace that the uninformed public needs it to be. Consumers are operating at the speed of social media, and rumor, which are far faster than the time it takes for information to trickle down through Extension publications and farm shows.
No offense to local Extension educators, but its true - how long would it take the animal agriculture industry to come up with an appropriate response to undercover videos on farms without appearing defensive? Animal rights activism is using the Internet Age to its advantage. At the same time, its forcing animal agriculture to become a more organized entity, to refine ways of responding to attacks as a united front, and to develop systems of ensuring and communicating responsibility.
Farmers can't be immune to public influence, and we can't pretend to be, either. The future of agriculture depends on this - not that there will ever be an end to agriculture, but that there could very likely be an end to how we know agriculture as it is now in how we live it.
Farmers need to tell their story, they need to appear as experts in food animal production, and they need to earn consumers' trust through education and accountability. We need consumers to like us.