Animal welfare — act now, or have someone else do it

PARTNERS  The National Farm Animal Care Council is comprised of members from both animal welfare groups and agriculture

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Livestock producers need to both walk the walk and talk the talk on standards for animal welfare, or have someone else set the agenda for them. That was the message from two speakers at the recent International Livestock Congress here.

Dr. Mike Siemens, leader of animal welfare and husbandry for Cargill, emphasized that the industry must be proactive. “We’re very reactive. I know we try to do some programs and put things in place, but we’re afraid of the issue because the issue gets framed for us on a routine basis,” Siemens said.

“We’ve got to try to interject facts, and try to counteract lies and mistruths, and that’s a hard thing to do.”

Siemens said the Internet has changed the landscape, allowing animal rights groups inexpensive access to the public through social media. “That’s given our critics a huge venue to infiltrate the public persona, to get to them and given them information, be it accurate, or more times inaccurate, or partial truths.”

Siemens said the push by rights groups really started to get intense in the mid-1990s, which resulted in individual fast-food chains being protested until welfare concessions were made.

Recently, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) came to an agreement with the United Egg Producers to radically change the industry to make it more humane. The agreement came at a time when several states were contemplating legislation regarding cage size, and amid mounting public concern.

“They found no other way to resolve that so they struck a deal with HSUS,” said Siemens, adding the other commodity groups were opposed to the precedent set by the direct negotiations between the two groups.

Siemens said fallout from leaked videos from slaughterhouses and feedlots is always in response to animal abuse, not to routine protocol. He said the solution is to remove the cause.

“We need to identify those in the animal protein supply chain who abuse animals and help them exit gracefully out of the industry,” said Siemens.

Too busy farming

Ryder Lee, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) manager of federal and provincial relations, also emphasized the need to be proactive rather than reactive.

“Are we telling our story? I don’t think so — we’re too busy raising cattle,” said Lee. “We’ve seen the result of not being out there, telling our story about our sensitive areas when we get clobbered by things like lean finely textured beef which came to be known as ‘pink slime,’” he said. Lee said the pink slime controversy reduced the price of beef by as much as $40 per head, and reduced the supply of lean beef so much, increased imports from outside of North America were required to fill demand.

Lee represents the CCA on the National Farm Animal Care Council, which consists of members representing industry, government, retail, consumers, and animal rights advocates. He said the organization is unique in the world, and may help stave off some of the battles over animal welfare seen in other nations.

“We’re talking in a civilized way rather than combatively in court fighting ballot initiatives and in MPs’ offices,” said Lee. “We’re all talking about how farm animals are raised in Canada.”

Currently, a new beef industry code of best practices is being developed through the National Farm Animal Care Council, and when it’s unveiled in 2013, it will have been approved by all the organizations it represents.

Lee says producers and the industry have to do a better job of letting the public and animal rights groups know what is being improved, such as using smaller brands, different castration methods, using pain medication, and other innovations such as two-stage weaning.

He said that unless the industry is continually improving animal welfare and communicating those improvements, government could step in with costly new regulations. Even retailers could demand new protocols that producers would have to comply with.

Lee said the industry can lead on animal welfare, and circumvent outside intervention.

“That’s what we want to avoid and if we become more talkers and more doers about animal care, I think we can get there.”

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