ONE of my previous columns (Feedstuffs, Feb. 17) on the topic of animal activists' undercover videos ended with the observation:
Never mind those who tell you that the events of some activist videos are par for the industry. None of us want an industry like that.
What's far more common, albeit unpublicized, are the little acts of care and husbandry that happen on a daily basis. Maybe, just maybe, one of those videos will go viral someday and tell the real story of animal agriculture.
Those remarks prompted one reader to ask: "If such instances are so rare, why do animal protection groups so routinely find them?"
That's probably a fair question. While videos and stories of abuse are intermittent across the industry, there's no doubt that the recurrence of any such incident is troubling. Ideally, those things would never occur.
However, given the size and highly fragmented nature of the industry, it's not surprising to find problems. Unfortunately, due to the sheer number of people involved with and employed in animal agriculture, there's going to be the potential for shortfalls along the way.
Still, that doesn't excuse indifference or abuse. Any person prone to mistreating animals needs to be identified and removed from working with animals.
I'd like to think that animal agriculture has improved dramatically during the past several decades. There's more attention to a whole host of animal welfare considerations. Moreover, accountability and a commitment to animal welfare have risen dramatically over time.
Nevertheless, any recurrence of these videos highlights the fact that work still remains to be done. Claiming that the entire system is broken is disingenuous, but it's always going to be the outliers who grab the attention.
Therefore, the underlying cause or reason for the recurrence of such videos is an important question for everyone involved. Failing to address that question leaves an opening for the outsiders to claim that isolated exposés are representative of the broader industry.
In most of these instances, apathy and animal mistreatment didn't occur overnight. Rather, they developed over time and are more a reflection of failed leadership.
There can't be any room — zero tolerance — for any type of abuse and/or mistreatment. It makes all of us cringe.
If abuse is occurring, though, it's not because people eat meat or because we kill animals or because we're not paying employees enough. Nope. It's because those at the top aren't providing meaningful leadership.
With most of the undercover videos documenting animal abuse (not to be confused with the recent video dealing with porcine epidemic diarrhea virus prevention practices at a Kentucky hog farm), my guess is that there are numerous other indicators of a broken system. Without knowing the specifics about any case, I'd wager that the operations were showing symptoms of poor leadership and oversight in other areas too.
For whatever reason, complacency becomes the norm; it creeps in with time, and all components of the system begin to break down. Unfortunately, in those operations, animal well-being gets shorted along the way.
Total quality management (TQM) is an important principle for all sorts of industries. The primary advantage of well-implemented TQM systems is a relentless pursuit of continuous improvement and the constant need for checking/assessing the processes.
With that in mind, I'd argue that it is even more important in animal agriculture versus any other type of production or manufacturing system to ensure proper animal handling (and, equally important, to ensure good food safety practices).
That's where the importance of industry leadership comes in. Those responsible for overseeing the system have to generate constancy of purpose and instill a sense of responsibility and empowerment among all employees.
The recurrent nature of activists' undercover videos doesn't reflect a problem with animal agriculture; rather, it emphasizes a call to ensure more effective leadership not just in some or most but in all operations.
*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.