Why animal welfare is such a hot-button issue
We’ve all seen the sickening animal abuse videos of cows being abused on farms and at slaughter plants. Such abuse—real, coerced or maliciously altered images—resonates strongly with the public.
Such scenes would undoubtedly have raised eyebrows a generation or two ago, too. But the revulsion now is so strong that it jeopardizes the social license that dairy farmers have with the general consuming public, says Jennifer Walker, director of dairy stewardship for Dean Foods and Gail Golab, director of the animal welfare division of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"When we lose consumers’ trust, we lose our social license, which will then lead to increased regulation," Walker says.
There are a number of reasons consumer attitudes have changed. And farmers ignore them at their peril.
Prior to World War II, a fourth of the U.S. population was involved in food production in some way. And Americans spent a quarter of their income on food.
Today, middle- and upper-income families spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, and much of that is spent eating out. American consumers are three or more generations removed from the farm, with little understanding of how food is actually produced.
Our ethical world has also changed. First came the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Then came feminism in the 1970s and 1980s. And then concern expanded to endangered species and the planet’s welfare.
What has changed is people’s moral circle. In the past, they were most concerned with the well-being of themselves and their immediate family. But as affluence increased and individuals started recognizing the rights and plight of other groups, their moral circle grew to include others.
"What’s different is that we now include animals in our moral circle," Golab says.
Family structures have also changed. In the past, multiple generations lived together in the same house or nearby. Today, families are stretched coast to coast, or even internationally. "So now people are using animals and pets for social stability," Golab says.
Pets have become "family," almost as important as children and grandchildren. "In some cases of domestic violence, abused women won’t leave a relationship out of concern for their animals," Golab says. Other studies show homeless people will go without food themselves in order to feed their animal companions.
In other words, Golab says, "animals have moved from the center of our plates to the center of our hearts."
Understanding this new relationship is critical to dairy farmers when they try to relate to consumers. Agribusiness can be seen as self-serving: "If we don’t take care of our cows, they won’t produce" no longer resonates with consumers.
USDA studies suggest 25% or more of all cows are lame, with many in chronic pain.
"The message should be: ‘We take care of our cows because it is the right thing to do,’ " Golab says.
The dairy industry needs to be honest and authentic. "It’s crucial to understand that transparency is expected," Walker says.
Almost as critical: determining if animal welfare and audit programs are designed to address the worst abuses or are they designed to improve welfare of the national herd. Walker says the following points are crucial:
- "If you say you’re doing something, do it and be ready to prove it," she says. Having guidelines for lameness of less than 10% of cows is great. But it rings hollow when USDA studies show that the actual lameness incidence on farms is 25% or more.
- Don’t make promise you can’t keep.
- Learn from the mistakes and successes of other farmers and other industries.
- Don’t just tell consumers what you think that they want to hear.
- Admit when you’re wrong, stop making excuses and correct the mistakes.
In the end, farmers must understand that the consumer is really each and every one of our customers, Walker says.
"Farmers and their employees need to do the right thing even when no one is looking," she says. "When just one falters, everyone in the industry pays the price of that abuse."
Treating farm animals well does not make them pets, Walker says. "It makes us good stewards and good human beings. We owe these animals a good life and a good death.
"If we don’t manage that, we’ll not only be financially bankrupt but morally bankrupt," she adds.
Hot Button Issues
There are about five animal welfare hot- button issues that trigger concern, if not outrage, by consumers when they occur.
- Anything that cause an animal pain, such as dehorning without anesthesia.
- Ill treatment of any kind.
- Confinement in tiny boxes, such as veal crates (or sow gestation stalls).
- The condition of animals as they go to slaughter. Downer cows are an absolute no-no.
- Inhumane slaughter.
"Dehorning of calves without anesthesia rises to the top of the list. No consumer will watch dehorning cattle without anesthesia and think that it is a positive thing," Walker says.
Producers realize dehorning is just a moment in time in the life of calf, but consumers don’t like to see a baby struggle from the burn of a dehorning iron, even if the animal is restrained.
Lameness is another huge issue because it involves constant, chronic pain to the animal. Studies show that anywhere from 25% to 35% of the cows in the country are lame at any one time, and that’s not good, Walker says.
Much of it comes down to good, common sense stockmanship. Producers overcrowd barns because it’s thought to be profitable. But it inevitably leads to more lame cows because there are too few freestall beds to lie in.
"Good stockmanship is a priority. If we focus on that, everything else falls into place," Walker says.
Animal welfare ranges from very bad on some farms to very good on others. "Every farm is different. And one protocol doesn’t fit all," Walker says. "We need to get to good on all farms."
The key is to ensure that the critical goals are reached: Pain mitigation, reasonable stocking densities, low levels of lameness, humane treatment of downer cows and timely euthanasia when necessary.
But farms have to be held accountable, she adds. There will be times when some compliance measures will be required, such as the elimination of tail docking.
Welfare audit programs should verify when animals are cared for properly, document continuous improvement and identify areas that need improvement.
"Auditors need to follow up and document that plans are developed and implemented," Walker says.