Commentary: Animal abuse is livestock industry’s Achilles heel

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Somewhere in America today an animal rights activist lurks on a farm with a hidden camera. It’s hardly a secret. Indeed, the activists groups have repeatedly told us hidden cameras are their most successful tactic and they’ll continue to use them.

Yet, even with the knowledge of our foe’s battle plan, our industry continues to fall into their ambush.

By now you’ve all seen the memo: animal abuse cannot be tolerated. It’s a public relations disaster, a detriment to animal performance and business profitability, and creates a poor environment for all employees. But most important, animal abuse is simply wrong.

This week’s news of the release of an undercover video by the group Mercy For Animals underscores the need for America’s livestock industries to redouble their efforts to end animal abuse. Organizations representing every domestic livestock species have animal well-being programs in place. And over the past several years those programs have helped foster dramatic improvements in animal care.

All of those industry implemented programs express a “zero tolerance” for animal abuse. Under such guidelines the only possible grades our industries can achieve are pass or fail. Therefore, when it comes to issuing a grade on animal abuse our collective industries are failing.

That sounds harsh, and it’s not meant to minimize the tremendous effort put forth by extension agents, association employees, veterinarians and producers. We’ve made a lot of progress, no doubt. But that one bad apple is still ruining the whole barrel.

Not that this week’s target of the undercover video is a bad apple. Quite the contrary, the owners of the Idaho dairy caught in this latest event are responsible, progressive livestock operators. They told the Associated Press they were appalled by the images depicted in the video and have taken swift and decisive steps to address the situation.

“And we also showed the video to all the rest of the employees in our dairies, all 500 employees, and they had to sign a deal that said they understand that there’s zero tolerance for animal abuse in our dairies,” the owner said.

The three former workers at the dairy allegedly caught abusing animals in the video have been charged with animal cruelty by the Twin Falls County prosecutor.

Unfortunately, the actions of the three workers placed the jobs of the other 500 employees in jeopardy. That’s because the dairy may lose some of its large customers. And the actions of those three also contributes to the gradual erosion of consumer confidence in food animal products.

A news story about this week’s undercover video on Drovers/CattleNetwork brought reader comments from both sides of the issue. But one from an animal rights activist and vegetarian known to Drovers/CattleNetwork wrote: “Animal cruelty is endemic to the dairy industry and agribusiness as a whole.” That statement is completely false, but as long as we have events such as the one this week this activist will be able to make such outrageous claims, a point the activist made at the end of the post: “You can bet this will be shared widely on Facebook and Twitter and I’ll do my part to make it happen.”

We may have made great strides in changing animal care practices, but as long as animal abuse occurs 0.01 percent of the time, the opportunity exists for activists to exploit such actions with video distributed via Facebook and Twitter.

Our industries must continue to strive toward zero incidence for our zero tolerance policies on animal abuse to work.

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Michigan  |  October, 12, 2012 at 09:21 AM

So we fire 5 untrained individuals (2 of whom were apparently undocumented and have disappeared into the wind) and put them into the legal system and they go to jail and we go about business as usual - and the dairy industry sends out the following talking points to "assure the public" - "we condemn these acts", "individuals must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law", "this is not representative of how we take care of our cows", "dairy farmers must share their story" and blah blah blah I can't help but wonder how many times we are going to "condemn" things - it is easy to condemn things - those people behaved bad, they were cruel and we condemn their actions - does condemning become meaningless if we continue to do it and do nothing else? But isn't the problem really a culture that says this is OK- this didn't happen because someone from MFA showed up and video taped the abusive behavior - it happened because because no one was concerned enough, no one set the tone that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable - and so (IMHO) the question becomes are these "bad apples" or is there a continuum where because people at the top don't care enough to do the right thing are there really more rotten apples in the barrel - we just haven't seen them? Is this just another case of "not my job" - yeah I didn't like the way the cows were treated but it is not my job? It is hard to imagine that no one saw anything before the video came to light - what is wrong with the guys on the top that they allow this to happen (repeatedly)....the problem isn't the cows or the facilities or the system - the problem is the people

Missouri  |  October, 12, 2012 at 09:33 AM

While this is not what our industry wants to have happen, it will continue as long as there are groups like this. While their intentions may be good, although perhaps misinformed, their tactics are cowardly and underhanded. Why don't they secretly video all of the good things we do to keep our livestock healthy, happy and productive? Where are the cowards when it's pouring down rain and you're sitting in the mud pulling a calf, bringing in an old cow with a new calf, or mothering up a ewe with triplets? Perhaps these groups would have less credence if they were to be followed around and videoed when they do things which are not desirable. We all know what happens when these so-called animals rights groups break into facilities and "free" the animals.....the animals die! Where is their accountability ?

Missouri  |  October, 12, 2012 at 09:33 AM

While this is not what our industry wants to have happen, it will continue as long as there are groups like this. While their intentions may be good, although perhaps misinformed, their tactics are cowardly and underhanded. Why don't they secretly video all of the good things we do to keep our livestock healthy, happy and productive? Where are the cowards when it's pouring down rain and you're sitting in the mud pulling a calf, bringing in an old cow with a new calf, or mothering up a ewe with triplets? Perhaps these groups would have less credence if they were to be followed around and videoed when they do things which are not desirable. We all know what happens when these so-called animals rights groups break into facilities and "free" the animals.....the animals die! Where is their accountability ?

Bill Akins    
Gladewater, Texas  |  October, 12, 2012 at 09:43 AM

Since we are dealing with people, 100% of animal or any other abuse will never be eliminated. Not spousal abuse, not child abuse, etc. There will always be someone who will kick their dog because they are upset about something totally unrelated. I am glad to see this industry promote humane treatment of animals, but animal rights groups will always document an animal abuse case, even if they have to pay someone to act it out. The policies of animal rights groups creates unintended abuse. It is just that this abuse is not seen. One example is the anti hunting agenda. Without the numbers of wildlife controlled, there will be an overpopulation and a resulting malnutrition of wildlife which results in horrible deaths to wildlife. Many of the predators have been reduced and now it is man's responsibility to control the numbers so the habitat is not overwhelmed.

kansas  |  October, 12, 2012 at 11:21 AM

cowdoc, bj and bill are all absolutely correct and have very worthwhile points. Virtue begins at home and everyone at every level of ownership, management and labor (usually the same people) are Responsible to prevent and reward or punish success & failures. As to the relentless hounding of Vegans, there's no doubt they lay in-wait to destroy us with no concern for honesty or "fair-play". However, there is a limit to the "mea culpas" value in dealing with the consumer, and more importantly our deadly enemies in HSUS, PETA, Sierra Club, etc.,etc.,etc. It is a sign of weakness that predators like these radical vegans and eco-terrorists will exploit... just as cadres of class-action lawyers exploit victims of child abuse in the religious community. And their is no limit to how they'll use the, "when did you stop beating your wife (animal) mr. smith", methods if we restrict ourselves to an apology based response. PETA murders companion animals regularly in their shelters,,, and the media is ho-hum because no one screams loudly enough. HSUS deceives donors and kills shelter animals daily, by ommission of the funding they imply is given. Responses Must Include counter-attacks questioning their motives and blasting their hypocrisy. This is war and we cannot surrender or let anyone perceive us as surrendering. We really are Good People and we cannot let our character to be sullied by intentional liars exploiting anamolies that occurr in every field and profession.

Bob Milligan    
St. Paul, Minnesota  |  October, 12, 2012 at 12:42 PM

Having a zero tolerance policy, typically meaning immediate termination, is a reasonable response to the current industry situation. It is, however, not sufficient as it is reactive only. The proactive portion of a zero tolerance policy requires treating animals appropriate as a core value of the farm, developing a farm culture consistent with that value, and a training program that ensures that employees buy into the core values and that provides training and coaching so employees will respond with thoughtful behavior when they experience frustration, anger and other emotions that can result in instinctive response that include violating the core value. A couple years ago several of us taught a session on barn culture focusing on treatment of animals for the Minnesota Port Board.

Kansas  |  October, 12, 2012 at 01:00 PM

Let’s see if I have this right: These are the actions of a bad apple. No, wait, Bettencourt Dairies is not a bad apple, but a progressive livestock operator. How do we know? Because after someone provided incontrovertible evidence that their employees were beating and shocking animals, they told the press that they were “appalled” and fired 3 workers. How predictable, given the alternative: “Yeah, we’re so indebted that we have to max out production, and the only way to do that is to have workers move the cattle however they can. We just didn't expect them to get caught, but we fired 3 guys who weren't working out anyway”. And the ones who filmed the abuse? “Foes”, “lurking” while acting out their “battle plan”. Commenters here refer to their ilk as “deadly enemies”, “radical vegans”, “eco-terrorists”, “murderers of companion animals”, “hypocrites”, “intentional liars”, “cowards” who “break into facilities”, cause animals to die, and who are like those who exploit victims of child abuse. Wow. Talk about killing the messenger! Why isn’t the press going after those deadly, lurking, murderering, lying, cowardly exploiters? An employee at an operation about the size of Bettencourt told me “This isn't about bad apples. If you investigate, you can prosecute.” Seriously, folks. Whenever ethics and vested interests conflict, vested interests prevail.

Janet Weeks V    
Sacramento, CA  |  October, 12, 2012 at 04:08 PM

Greg Henderson: If you are going to quote me, you ought to quote my entire statement to put it into proper context. I was the animal rights activist and VEGAN (not vegetarian) who wrote, “Animal cruelty is endemic to the dairy industry and agribusiness as a whole.” I stand behind that statement with plenty of evidence to support it. I'd be happy to cite my sources. You might also publish the comment I posted several hours ago.

Texas  |  October, 13, 2012 at 01:24 AM

The BIBLE says if you consume animal products when you have plant based food available you will burn in hell. You will have no excuse when you meet your maker , you have been warned. Remember this day until your dying breath. If you make your belly your god you are the enemy of Christ. Spread this message to every one you know . May god help you all.

October, 13, 2012 at 01:07 PM

Someone around these situations always knows and is talking; that's how MFA finds situations to put someone in there to film. Feed salesmen, truck drivers, worker's relatives, employees who find better jobs - they know. What's needed, which nobody talks about, is a way to find these situations so they can be fixed before things get totally out of hand. What would would happen if this were a disease like brucellosis? The industry would be better off figuring out a way to find these situations early and and help the producer get things back on track. Otherwise, if it keeps happening the government is likely to step in with an expensive mandatory program that is part of the milk PMO and USDA meat inspection. Alberta producers set up their own Alberta Farm Animal Care Hotline to do that - They have a Livestock Care response plan - - and a brief business plan - - on line. Would this work here? Would it stop the hits producers are taking in the pocket book and the blackeyes the industry gets from these videos?

SD  |  October, 13, 2012 at 05:15 PM

First, any true abuse of animals should not be condoned. Animal care must be based on the best of animal science, and NOT on the demands of animal rights activists. Now, do we KNOW whether or not the accused dairy had a plan in place, trained employees, and monitored appropriately? Did the 'whistle blower' contact authorities IMMEDIATELY after learning of the claimed abuse? There is NO excuse for holding such information for an OPPORTUNE release. Those have usually been coupled with solicitation of funds campaigns by activist groups, which is equally reprehensible with the abuse itself. Do we KNOW whether or not the 'abuse' was encouraged or instigated by the filmmaker? That CERTAINLY should be punishable AT LEAST to the same degree as any punishment of the dairy receives.

October, 14, 2012 at 12:40 AM

think you better reread your bible

kansas  |  October, 14, 2012 at 07:23 PM

Janet Weeks V, Randy (from KS??), and Lazarus are all cut from the same mental cloth, though Lazarus seems to be less deceitful and more direct. They are what's known as Trolls, which seems a very fitting name when applied to Ms. Janet especially. Don't bother with addressing their "issues" or offering any reasoned responses. That is a waste of time. Simply treat them with the same contempt and scorn that you would show any pest. And try to get at least a chuckle from the adolescent charm of their bitter, hateful, self-righteous rantings.

Kansas  |  October, 16, 2012 at 09:41 AM

Michael said: “Don't bother with addressing their "issues" or offering any reasoned responses.” Translated: “Make them shut up. Just shut up. Nyah, nyah, nyah.” Why not match Weeks’ offer to provide grounds for her comments? We see new undercover videos of horrid abuses to farm animals several times a month. Shutting out rational discourse and criticism is not the answer—it leaves others with the impression that you are in denial, or worse—covering up. Watching the videos of the abuses at Bettencourt Dairies, Seaboard Foods, Central Valley Meat Co., Butterball, Buckeye Veal Farm, Norco Ranch, Christensen Farms, Conklin Dairy Farms, and so on and pretending that farm animals are all leading full and happy lives is classic Orwellian doublethink. As the employee at a large dairy told me “…If you investigate, you can prosecute.”

manhattan, ks.  |  October, 17, 2012 at 05:02 PM

Randy said,"Translated: “Make them shut up. Just shut up. Nyah, nyah, nyah.” Nope that means I could let you tour 99.9% of ag operations and find no abuse but you would condemn all of agriculture when you find one person who does something wrong. All the evidence and science is never enough till you get your view of the "perfect" world. Funny how you quote this "employee" instead of just stopping this supposed "abuse".

Kansas  |  October, 20, 2012 at 07:26 PM

99.9%? Seriously? Look online for undercover videos on any of the farms and, no matter how hardened you are to the treatment of farm animals you may be, any one of these will make your heart ache: Wyoming Premium Farms, Kreider Egg Farms, Hawkeye Sow Centers, Prestage, Seaboard Farms, Butterball, Sparboe, Sparboe, Sparboe, Iowa Select Farms, E6 Cattle, Catfish Corner, Smithfield, Willmar Poultry Company, Cal-Maine, Cal-Cruz Hatcheries, Buckeye Veal Farm, Conklin Dairy Farm, Roseacre Farms Winterset, Roseacre Farms Stuart, Roseacre Farms Guthrie Center, Rembrandt Farms, Willet Dairy Farm, Country View Family Farms, Bushway Packing, Hy-Line Hatchery, Michael Foods, Quality Egg of New England, Reitz Dairy Farm, Norco Ranch, Agriprocessors, Westminster Auction, Livestock Exchange, Clovis Livestock Auction, Greencastle Livestock Auction, Portales Livestock Auction, Gemperle Enterprises, Hallmark, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Hormel Sow Farm, Aviagen Turkeys, Musicon, House of Raeford Farms, Local Pride, ISE-America, Mepkin Abbey, Tyson, Tyson, Murphy Family Ventures, LLC, George's, Butterball, Butterball Turkey Hatchery, Ebenshade, Transport, County Fair Farms, Labelle Poultry, Red Bird Egg Farms, ISE-America, Tyson, Agriprocessors, Ohio Fresh Egg-Laying Hens, Purdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride, Red Bird Egg Farms, Sonoma Foie Gras, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, Hudson Valley Foie Gras, ISE-America, Weaver Brothers Egg Farm, ISE-America, Red Bird Egg Farms, County Fair Farms, ISE-America, Livestock Auctions, Seaboard Farms, McArthur Dairy Farm, Crestview Farm, Belcross Farm…(sorry, there is a word limit here). As my contact says, “…if you investigate, you can prosecute.” The burden of proof would appear to have shifted to you…

December, 30, 2012 at 06:47 PM

I guess you and I don't read the same bible....

dairystate  |  January, 17, 2013 at 10:03 AM

How about the industry doing their own 'secret videos'? You have customers...the public, who are your clientele. They are intelligent, informed individual who want to know what they are spending their money on. Its a fact now. Not like the 'good old days' before internet media. Its a lot more transparent out there. You have to admitt the ag community has somewhat set themselves up with all the propaganda like advertising showing small pastured cow farms on our milk and butter cartons, etc., when that is not what most of the farms producing the bulk of our milk look like now. So the public has caught up to this realization and game over?? No! Most farmers practice good animal husbandry. So the agricultural community needs to spend some time and money putting out their own good PR. Show the public all the work, care and humanity that goes into your business. Stop whinning and looking vicimized. If you are proud of what you do show it off!!

Denver CO  |  January, 22, 2013 at 09:56 AM

So you're pulling out a newborn calf that will either be immediately slaughtered, sent off to be killed a short time later as "veal", killed for meat before it's a year old, or faced with the same fate as her mother and be impregnated before she's a year old (then slaughtered when milk production falls off). And the cycle of abuse and exploitation continues. So don't tell us about "happy cows" or other "happy" farm animals and don't tell us they're productive because THEY want to have babies every year. Mercy for Animals is one of the few groups educating the public and nothing speaking louder than their videotapes.

Susan J Caldwell    
Ireland  |  January, 22, 2013 at 12:09 PM

Lovely to hear how well the dairy industry treat their captives, eh sorry cows. Fantastic jobs lads, well done, so you dont milk the cows dry, forcibly impregnate them every year (rape) take their female babies from them whilst they mothers cry for days for them, shoot the boy calves or put them in veal cages, pump the animals full of hormones that are banned in Europe and finally after they are milked dry send them to the abbatoir to be made into burgers. Oh yes and dont tell us they have a lovely humane death, cos humane death does not exist no more than friendly rape does, the two words look simply ridiculous together, oh and all to give humans dairy which is very bad for them,which most people are intolerant of and which promotes many different kind of cancers including colon, breast and prostate. Read the China study, in countries where they do not have dairy like Japan and China the incidences of these cancers are very low. Not to mention how environmentally unfriendly it is to graze animals to eat crops, when it would be just simpler to feed people the crops. Yes, the dairy industry is hazardous to the animals, the planet and human health, for all of these reasons, going vegan is the only kind, sustainable compassionate healthy thing to do.

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