Controversies in animal welfare

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cowsGeni Wren Animal welfare and improving, monitoring and evaluating it are a high priority for the American Meat Institute and its members. But animal welfare, specifically for cattle and swine, is a complex subject not without its own controversies.

At the 2012 AMI Animal Care & Handling Conference this week in Kansas City, Mo., veterinary experts discussed the interface between animal welfare and consumers.

Gail Golab, PhD, DVM, Dipl. ACAW, director of Animal Welfare for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said there are three areas of controversy:

1. Different people evaluate animal welfare differently. “One group thinks about what is going on with the body such as health, reproduction and growth,” she explains. “A second group focuses on the mind and how animals feel, and their pain, suffering, contentment and pleasure.” The third equates welfare with natural and how close does the animal find itself to if it was “free-living” in nature. Golab says we are looking at intersection of these three.

“The reality is that we stray from the center where these three intersect, and we get disconnects,” Golab says. “Physical” people are not as interested in the “natural” or “feelings” aspects of the others. “People gravitate to what has more return on investment for them.”

2. Controversy arises when we don’t proactively recognize and address public concerns. Three main concerns, says Golab, are animals in boxes or restraint, things “cut off” or modified without pain control, and injury/death of animals. “Consumers care about what, why, when and how,” she says.

3. When consumer expectations don’t match reality or perceptions of industry performance. “Animal welfare has two components,” Golab says. “’What is’ which is what we are actually assessing, and ‘what ought to be’, which is social perspective and ethical concerns.”

Golab says what determines social ethic is culture, traditions, science and economics. “People decide what they can and can’t live with.”

Unintended consequences
National Pork Producers Council Chief Veterinarian Liz Wagstrom, DVM, says in the pork industry there is a lot of emphasis on sow housing and gestation housing, but that there is an increasing awareness of animal welfare efforts that the industry has made in the areas of pain management at castration/tail docking, transportation issues and euthanasia.

In the area of sow housing and gestation, it’s easy to find numerous legislative activities dating from 2002 and retailers/food service putting demands in place for a change in production practices.

While these may be the hot topics of the moment, Wagstrom says hastily putting demands in place has and can result in unintended negative consequences up and down the pork production chain. These include:

  • Announcements made about company demands on producers without verification of supply.
  • Requires segregation in processing and at packing plants, increasing costs.
  • Increases carbon footprint of the industry.
  • Will likely force some smaller farmers out of business and may disproportionately affect smaller farmers w/out capital to remodel.

Wagstrom says the pork industry is working to identify gaps in programs by conducting consumer research, having dedicated teams working with the industry to address questions, focusing with farmers on animal care and training, exploring ways to improve pork production to help farmers, and transparently communicating to consumers about how pigs are raised. “We need to keep the conversation going.”

Manage the conversation
Though milking dairy cows are usually left out of the “meat” discussion until the dairy cow becomes a beef cow, they still are an important factor as dairy animals make up over 20% of the beef industry.

Jennifer Walker, PhD, DVM, Director of Dairy Stewardship for Dean Foods, says, “Beyond the dairy supply chain, one of the biggest challenges and controversies is trying to understand and balance the frustration between consumer perception of what animal welfare is and is not.  

“We have to manage the conversation and make people understand how we focus on welfare,” Walker says. “On the dairy side, we have to focus and understand the overall long-term picture of welfare for 5-10 years of the animal’s lifetime. The problem for us is that people focus on ‘snapshots in time’ instead of the lifetime of the animal.”

Walker says the industry has to have an honest conversation of where it wants to be. “We need to manage the message and manage the conversation, not just being transparent, but being honest.”

She notes that safety and affordability of food is more top-of-mind for consumers in focus groups, but that when the subject of animal welfare comes up, it can make consumers uncomfortable. “Most people take for granted we take care of our cows. We don’t want consumer to go into a market and have to think about animal welfare.”

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October, 18, 2012 at 09:31 AM

In the meantime, the livestock industries must find & fix those things everyone agrees are bad. 1) For a cow down in an animal flow choke point such as in the parlor, farms must have a written protocol, the equipment identified and set aside, and employees trained in using that equipment to quickly and humanely move that animal out of that spot to safety. Even though such situations are rare on well designed, well managed dairies, not having these requirements in certification programs is a major oversight. 2) The livestock industries must develop proactive early detection systems for identifying those situations that everyone already agrees are clearly abusive. 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. Give these eyeballs a place to report these situations and a process to fix such problems that doesn't discourage such reporting, doesn't jeopardize the farm or the employees, and sufficiently transparent that the consumers and those marketing our product to them see as proactive rather than reactive. The industry would be better off figuring out how to find these situations early and and a process to help the producer get things back on track. Otherwise, the government will 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 -

Wisconsin  |  October, 19, 2012 at 01:15 AM

No-one really can agree what animal abuse is but they'll know it when they see it. An example of this is the preceding response from Annon. (anonymous?) Here's something we all need to know about the mentioned group MFA (Mercy For Animals) This group actively promotes vegetarianism. Annons statements are very nice but at the same time misleading. Much of animal agriculture is not the fully equiped, ultra modern vision of perfection. Most farms are out of date, lack sufficient available labor and funding to modernize. Maybe a tax exempt group like MFA can have it all, but in agriculture, you work with what you have. I don't know of a single farmer who wants their animals to suffer. Most of the percieved problems of animal cruelty are the result of using what's available. Way too often the only labor available to farmers is hardly interested in the animals welfare as much as they are simply having a little spending money. They cannot be constantly watched, let alone know what to do in case of an animal going down or needing special care. The solution is to hire workers who care enough about animlas to care for animals. But where are those people? There seems to be a lot of expertise but none are willing to do even what they say needs to be done. The suggestion that we need to have someone hanging around on farms with cameras is about as stupid as it gets. Put down the camera and help that cow you idiot! But then sensationalism gets far more attention, and donations, then work doesn't it? If they see nothing going wrong, make something happen,... perhaps? And what of those eyeballs? Betrayal? Paranoia? MFA could also stand for More Farmers Arrested. Or,... More Farms Abandoned.

October, 19, 2012 at 01:15 PM

The problem with these three intersections and trying to appease animal rights cult members is that their goal is abolition of all use of animals period. The idea that the public wants these changes is also not true. If it were then the higher priced caged free eggs would be flying off the shelves and taking over the egg rack and they don't. The organic chicken or caged free meat is also not being bought. There is no disconnect the majority of the public no longer believe in organic at those prices. They do not want to pay those prices. When forced as in England the farmers left the business and now the public has no eggs or bacon. They are not happy especially when they know our prices are ten times less than what they pay.

October, 20, 2012 at 10:48 AM

Charlie Arnot, who spent 10 yrs in the swine industry, claims that animal welfare falls into consumers' expectations, which most won't pay more for, while organic falls into value, which some will. An example is shirts - we all expect the buttons to stay on the shirts we buy from Walmart, Costco, or Target; we don't expect to have to go to Neiman-Marcus and pay more for that. Those who buy there do so for other value reasons, not expectations. He claims that when consumers loose trust that we in animal agriculture are meeting their expectations (not abusing animals), our social license to operate will be replaced by social control (regulation, legislation, litigation). Many videos of his presentations to producers are on-line. Here's one - A Feedstuffs article "Social license, trust critical to ag’s future" Slides from a recent presentation - Building Consumer Trust and Confidence in Today’s Animal Agriculture,%20Charlie.pdf His paper for a beef and dairy nutrition and management conference - "Protecting our Freedom to Operate: Earning and Maintaining Public Trust and our Social License"

mn  |  October, 20, 2012 at 03:21 PM

Patrick you are exactly on the farm is never ending..there is no time off or weekends to chill out ...always putting the animals first and caring for them is the priority as that is what makes the income ..this is not some hobby and these are not pets in fact animals treat each other worse than any person could inflict..that is why there is cages etc for certain types of animals.. we do not tell other people how to run their business. This business of humane care for animals is big money for everyone except the farmer who does the work.

MN  |  October, 30, 2012 at 10:18 AM

The group that equates welfare with natural and how close an animal finds itself to “free-living” in nature has never faced up to how cruel nature is to prey animals. Even on the worst of farms prey animals are not torn apart by big cats or wolves.

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