Agriculture needs legislation and a commitment to animal care
Farm Journal Media’s advocacy series, America’s Ag Challenge, provides information about external influences such as overreaching regulations, policymakers, courts and activists that impact their operations—and potentially endanger the future of their farms. The multimedia editorial campaign educates and motivates farmers to interact with legislators, regulators and consumers to help them understand why agriculture needs the resources and runway to maximize productivity, exercise stewardship and secure our food supply. To find resources and links to help make your voice heard, visit www.agweb.com/agriculture_challenge.
No one can deny that the videos are disturbing. Recent undercover video from a Wisconsin farm shows cows being kicked, whipped and otherwise abused. Another captures workers in Wyoming punching and kicking pigs and flinging piglets into the air. At one of the country’s largest egg suppliers, a video shows hens caged alongside rotting bird corpses, while workers burn and snap off the beaks of young chicks.
Each video, shot in the past two years by undercover animal rights activists, drew fast response: neighborhood outcry and media slander.
Until the video was released, the Wisconsin dairy Wiese Brothers Farm was a supplier for Baraboo-based cooperative Foremost Farms and Nestlé USA, which makes DiGiorno frozen pizzas. After the release, Nestlé and Foremost Farms quickly severed ties with the farm. The aforementioned egg
supplier, which operates in Iowa and other states, lost one of its biggest customers, McDonald’s, after the video went viral.
"There is no substitute for reliable animal well-being programs, but an effective response to an undercover video can be the difference between staying in business and seeing a lifetime of work destroyed," says Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Center for Food Integrity (CFI).
While groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Mercy for Animals, who shot the undercover videos, claim this abuse happens regularly out of view of the public and the law, the animal ag industry unanimously believes these cases are the exception.
Most farmers agree that humane treatment of animals is not only ethically moral, but also best for society as well as agricultural quality. For anyone who makes a living raising livestock, it’s hard to deny that well-treated animals are more efficient.
"As the nation’s oldest animal protection organization, the American Humane Association (AHA) has a long history of involvement with programs that help assure proper animal care," says Kathi Brock, national director of AHA’s Farm Animal Program. "It’s critical for farm management to set clear expectations for animal care and to have zero tolerance for mistreatment."
CFI and the U.S. pork and dairy industries recently launched an initiative called "See It? Stop It!? Animal care starts with you." A proactive demonstration of ag’s commitment to farm animal care, the initiative demands that if signs of animal abuse, neglect, mishandling or harm are witnessed, anyone working on a farm or in a farm setting has an obligation to report it immediately.
Betsy Flores, senior director of the National Milk Producers Federation Animal Health and Welfare program, says, "Animal care could not be more important to farmers. Having a system in place to contact authorities is imperative, and ‘See it? Stop it!’ provides that resource." Though it is uncommon, when animal abuse, neglect, harm or mistreatment take place, it’s essential to give animal care providers resources to swiftly report what they witness. The "See It? Stop It!" initiative provides several options to enable employees to speak up and stop animal abuse.
Votes Needed. While livestock groups are taking proactive measures to address animal abuse, a dozen or so state legislatures have drawn a harder line: They have proposed or enacted bills that would make it illegal to covertly videotape livestock farms or apply for a job at one without disclosing ties to animal rights groups. They have also drafted measures that require such videos
be given to the authorities almost immediately. Activists say these bills thwart any meaningful undercover investigation of large factory farms.
Critics call them "ag-gag" bills. Utah and Iowa are the first states to approve a law making it illegal to record operations at farms without the permission of the owner. It’s also illegal to gain employment to a farm under false pretenses with the goal of reporting on the farm’s activities.
In turn, industry groups have pressured legislators in several states to introduce measures intended to protect them from these kinds of incursions into their business. Despite a flurry of legislation—15 ag-gag bills introduced in 11 states—not a single one passed. Some states introduced multiple measures. Tennessee and Arkansas each put forth two bills, and Indiana put forth three.
In most cases, these ag-gag laws failed because of opposition by a large and broad coalition that tapped its grassroots network to hammer legislators with emails, phone calls and online campaigns.
The coalition included animal welfare groups, of course, but also environmental groups such as Food and Water Watch, organizations that advocate for a free press such as the National Press Photographers Association, and legal issue watchers such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
Experts expect that 2014 will be similar to 2013 in that 10 to 15 bills will be reintroduced in various states since many legislators work on a two-year cycle.
5 Steps to Survive an Undercover Video
- Prepare. Assume someone is video-taping your farm all the time. If you wait to prepare until you are notified there is a video, you will be less likely to survive, according to research from the Center for Food Integrity.
- Develop a solid track record for animal care. Be sure that you can demonstrate this was an exception, not the rule. Training, assessments, audits and documentation are critical. Also, participate in industry programs and build strong relationships with your veterinarian.
- Accept responsibility.It’s critical that you immediately accept responsibility. Do not blame others.
- Increase transparency. Welcome a review by customers, experts and others who can help you restore credibility. Invite media for follow-up. Explore additional opportunities for on-going digital transparency, such as installing a video camera in the barn and making it available online to watch 24 hours a day.
- Demonstrate and communicate an understanding of the ethical obligation to provide for the well-being of farm animals. Let the public know you are committed to doing what’s right. Demonstrate that your commitment goes beyond economic interest.