California delves into farm animal welfare

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Stakeholders in the farm-animal-welfare debate convened in California on Wednesday to voice concerns, anticipate challenges and perhaps find some common ground. 

The California Department of Food and Agriculture hosted the forum to provide the members of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture background on where the animal agriculture industry is currently at on farm animal welfare and the issues surrounding it. The board is comprised of a diverse group of members, the majority of which are not involved in animal agriculture.

During the discussion, California state veterinarian Annette Whiteford reminded the board why people in animal agriculture do what they do, and that is feed people. The world population is projected to grow to 9 billion people by 2050, a 52 percent growth in demand for food. “We need to produce more food with less land and California has a track record for doing that,” she says.

Whiteford also notes that there are many forms of animal agriculture and ways to raise animals. “I’m of the belief that we need them all to feed the world and diversity is what defines California.”

The easy part of any discussion on animal welfare is to say that animals should be cared for properly. The harder part is to define what that means and to know that it’s happening, she explains.

Dave Daley, California State University of Chico and California Cattlemen’s Association, echoed Whiteford’s sentiments. “It’s critical to hear different voices on the subject of animal welfare and animal agriculture and understand where we can agree and disagree,” he says. “We don’t have to agree to learn from one another.”

He also notes that we need to find out what we can agree on before we can disagree. “Our common ground is that we all believe in raising animals humanely.” Daley reminds that while farm animal welfare is a major issue with growing consumer interest, producers have always been interested in animal welfare.

Daley asked the board members that any discussions on animal welfare be strategic, collaborative, deliberative and not knee-jerk reactions. He also advised them to listen to a variety of voices on this topic and avoid extremes. “People who are at the extremes don’t help consumers or the agriculture industry move forward.” And, he said, it’s not just those extreme animal-rightist who call animal agriculture "murderers." It’s also someone who says their animals are theirs and they can just do what they want with them.

Understanding people’s agenda is also a key portion of farm animal welfare. “We need to know if people are truly interested in the well-being of animals, if it is a marketing argument, or do they just want to eliminate animal agriculture?” asks Daley.

“It’s also important to understand certification programs -– who designed them and do they really improve animal welfare,” he says.

Every speaker agreed that there is more than one way to do things right and that alternative solutions and alternative agriculture have value. “But, don’t assume they are always better,” notes Daley.

Margaret Wittenberg with Whole Foods Market shared its five-step animal-welfare program it has implemented in all of its stores. This program allows consumers to choose which level or production methods they want to buy products from. But, Wittenberg also agreed that there is no one way to do everything and it’s all about options.

Mel Coleman, Jr. from Niman Ranch suggested that the percent of each paycheck that consumers spend on food has to go up. Coleman also said, “It’s not that organic is good or bad, or conventional is good or bad -– it’s about giving consumers choice.”

“It’s time for everyone to come together on animal welfare, instead of saying your right or wrong,” Coleman added.

Jennifer Fearing from the Humane Society of the United States said its goal is to set a minimum standard for farm animal welfare and that they are against extreme confinement. “It’s not something anyone wants.” Fearing also noted that they are all for communication and collaboration instead of litigation.

This was first conversation that the California Department of Food and Agriculture has had on farm animal welfare in 10 years.

“This information provides us with a baseline and will allow the California Department of Food and Agriculture to take a more informed position when farm-animal-welfare issues do come up,” says CDFA Secretary Ross. Consumer interest and awareness of animal-welfare issues continues to increase.

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Philip Lewis    
Salem, NY  |  July, 28, 2011 at 09:46 AM

This makes sense. The state that's essentially insolvent, cannot balance a budget, is "out of control" and is driving out industry ... thinks it can improve animal welfare. How about dealing with millions of illegal aliens and finding employment for youth?

kansas  |  July, 28, 2011 at 10:30 AM

California is cutting it's own financial throat, in agriculture just like it has with other legitimate businesses, by playing nice with and kowtowing to environmental and animal-rights extremists in "sheep's clothing". These groups (HSUS, Sierra Club, etc.) are true-believers and fellow travelers in classic "ends justify means", seeking the total annihilation of animal agriculture in the CA/US. And, the businesses exploiting the "green/humane" market promotion provided by these demonizers of modern agriculture are blinded by the extremely high-premiums they earn from the misinformation and out-right lies spread by these ultimately anti-human, anti-ag groups. I say blinded because the Niman ranches and others' time will come as well, to be targeted by the thinly, but well disguised Vegans and Naturists, when they no longer need to negotiate with the conciliatory language now being spewed by forked tongues. The migration of animal agriculture to Mexico and other nations will continue, and the mass marketers who supply those who cannot afford Niman's $12/lb beef will continue to offer products customers actually need - versus what they're told they should have. And sleep walking California and any other states who concede to HSUS and the others? Well,,,, how are y'all doing in CA with that multi-billion dollar deficit?

Paige Venable    
California  |  July, 28, 2011 at 12:07 PM

I find it interesting that both of the comments about California ag come from people who don't live here. I know this is seen by some people as a nonsense topic, but there are indeed those of us who are meat eaters who do indeed care about how the meat we are eating was treated before harvesting. Much the same as I care whether my peanut butter was made with rotten peanuts and my vegetables were in fields with open sewage. I do not want to eat beef that came from a cow that developed a severe infection (and was subsequently treated with antibiotics) from an open wound due to overcrowding, or that was harvested just before it was down permanently. You can use the 'hippy-radical-anti-human' argument as much as you like, but it is more an issue of giving a crap about what I am putting in my body. Divorce the sentiment from the argument. Treat your crop well and you will produce the best possible product. I want meat that was reasonably happy and healthy while it was alive. I want vegetables that were from high grade seed, grown in healthy soil by farmers who gave a crap about that crop. That is the product I want to put in my body, not mistreated, mishandled or damaged product.

NY  |  July, 28, 2011 at 02:34 PM

Well spoken Paige, could not agree more. Hippies can't be the only ones that care about this issue!

Rob Wakeman    
Maryland  |  July, 28, 2011 at 04:19 PM

I am so very tired of the "we must feed the world out of the goodness of our hearts" scarecrow, as if the Department of Food and Agriculture represents a nonprofit organization dedicated to global philanthropy. The rest of the world would have a lot more to eat if folks in the US ate a lot less. Meat consumption per capita in most of central Europe and Scandinavia is 2/3 of the US, 1/2 in Japan. They aren't starving. This of course doesn't apply only to meat, but to junk food, all-you-can-eat buffets, the further gluttonization of the world diet in all of its forms.

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