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A few minutes with Leah Dorman: Where are we going with animal welfare?

Leah Dorman provides insight on where we are in regard to animal welfare and where things are likely headed.

Animal welfare is a hot-button issue that constantly simmers in the background and occasionally comes to a full boil. After just the first month of the new year, we've already seen another ag-gag law struck down by the courts and traditional slaughter techniques practiced by religious groups start to heat up.

So, I went looking for someone who might enlighten me on where we are and where we're going with animal welfare. (Let's leave the lunatic fringy animal rights silliness for a later conversation.)

I called on a person I've interviewed on similar topics: Dr. Leah Dorman. She is a person who communicates well and rationally. Here's why she is uniquely qualified to talk about animal welfare:

Her current position is director, food integrity and consumer engagement with Phibro Animal Health. Previous experience includes the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation's senior director of policy outreach and senior director of animal & food policy. She was a board member and committee chair for the National Institute for Animal Agriculture and veterinary medical officer for the Ohio Department of Agriculture.

There is more, but I would be accused of excessive lily gilding if I included all her achievements. Few people know the issues as well or are as capable of discussing them so that even the most obtuse can understand. Let's get to the Q and A.

Q Animal welfare issues have always been a serious talking point among people in animal agriculture as well as the general public. Of course, its impact waxes and wanes, depending on the day's news. Right now, it seems to be heating up. New laws about ritual slaughter and new court decisions about 'ag-gag' laws are fanning the fire.

First let's talk about what some legal minds have called a win for free speech and animal protection. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa recently struck down that state's ag-gag law, holding that the ban on undercover investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses violates the First Amendment. Is it a win for the First Amendment, a setback for property rights and biosecurity or maybe a little bit of both?

A I encourage the agricultural community to view this as an opportunity. Ag-gag laws build a legal barrier of sorts around farms, but unfortunately, these laws also send a message that farmers have something to hide — quite the opposite of transparency.

Farm groups increasingly recognize the need for transparency and often publicly assure consumers that production practices on today's farms are humane and that the people responsible for animal care are committed to doing the right thing. Yet, when they also support laws that barricade the barn doors, even when biosecurity reasons are cited, it leaves consumers confused, at best, and, at worst, convinced that the ag community is insincere or untrustworthy.

I will also note that farmers are doing a much better job addressing undercover videos in a manner that minimizes impact. You can probably recall a time when producers whose farms were the subject of such videos responded by angrily declaring that the videographer had no right to be on the property or refusing to comment at all and barring reporters from their property — both of which only added fuel to the fire, extending the length and reach of the story.

Today, responses are often much different. In cases where legitimate concerns are raised by videos — undercover or otherwise — farmers often acknowledge the upsetting nature of the video, clearly state their commitment to animal care and explain what corrective action is being taken to address the situation (employment termination, training, etc.). In other words, they lead with their values and commitment to doing the right thing, which often puts the issue — and story — to bed.

Q Earlier in January, the New York Times published an editorial headlined “When Animal Welfare & Religious Practice Collide.” It was a commentary on Belgium's new laws banning certain religious animal slaughter practices that "may be smoke screens for bigotry against Jews and Muslims." While that's always a combo slippery slope/thin ice argument to make, the question it raises is certainly valid. Can modern concepts of humane slaughter coexist with ancient practices?

A As with so many issues in our world today, it will require both sides genuinely working toward a shared goal — a real conversation. Too often, such efforts are hollow, more focused on winning the public debate — particularly on social media — than truly finding a solution. Being a person of faith myself, I appreciate honoring religious customs and beliefs while balancing the need to do right by the animal that has been destined for a higher purpose: feeding our families.

Q Although almost no one will read it, Animal Welfare Science, Husbandry & Ethics, a new book by animal expert Dr. Mark Fisher, principal adviser for New Zealand's Ministry for Primary Industries, talks about the complex issues pushing animal welfare, including such irresistible forces as politics, religion and economics.

“Animal welfare issues can't be solved just by telling the farmer how he or she must manage their resources. Perhaps we should look at the potential for changes from beyond the farm gate being used to improve animal welfare,” Fisher says. He asks this great question: “Should farmers be the only ones who pay for animal welfare?”

Let me ask you the question. Who should pay for it, and how much of a "say" in the issues should the various special interest groups have?

A The forces of politics, religion and economics, among others, have long influenced animal welfare and will likely do so long into the future. Such an assertion should surprise no one. That said, I do agree with the concept that animal welfare is coming under increasing scrutiny as part of a larger societal shift toward purpose-driven purchasing (or ethical buying or any number of labels assigned to the notion of aligning one's purchases with one's values), which is all the rage when it comes to food.

Add to this the “clean food” movement (which means different things to different people) and a greater understanding of the link between food and health, and no one should be surprised that pressure regarding animal care and welfare will come from every direction. The great news is that agriculture has a good story to tell, and we need to take every opportunity to engage.

Q About the many animal welfare organizations, which ones are having a real impact? Would you like to mention a few that are way off track?

A The World Wildlife Fund is an example of an advocacy group willing to engage in constructive dialogue, open to innovation and one that has become an ally to agriculture on some animal care issues when we demonstrate that our practices align with their values. On the other hand, there are radical animal rights groups, like PETA, that are often just plain irrational.

The biggest concern relates to organizations that are more mainstreamed, like The Humane Society of the United States, with its misleading emotional public pleas for donations to help pets in shelters while spending the bulk of the organization's dollars on their executive pay, offshore pension schemes, anti-agriculture legal action and legislative initiatives. It's worth noting that consumer research suggests that consumers — Millennials, in particular — are increasingly skeptical of activist groups.

Q Let's talk about the fringe elements in animal welfare and venture into animal rights groups, too — specifically the kinds of organizations that drove state legislatures to pass ag-gag laws. They've always operated on the outer fringes of the law, often deliberately stepping over the line. The impact they've had is significant. There is no doubt that their tactics have enraged everyone in animal agriculture, but would you call them an "inveterate force for evil," or have their actions led to some improvements?

A Let's step back from the influence of the fringe elements for a moment to acknowledge a much broader movement. I'm proud to say that animal agriculture has been on a journey of continuous improvement that began even before the first barn was constructed. The barns of today are built to keep animals clean, comfortable and healthy. I'm constantly fascinated by innovations such as robotic milkers that allow cows to be milked ad lib, automatic feeders and waterers that deliver consistent nutrition and the comforts of home such as air conditioning and heating systems that send messages to a manager's cell phone if there is an issue. Disease prevention through genetics is another innovation that may soon become a reality.

Let's give credit where credit is due. Farmers deserve the credit for an evolution of improvements in animal care. Activist-sponsored videos and other content — sometimes legitimate, sometimes manipulated — have had an impact, but they certainly haven't been the driving force. Additionally, the ends do not justify the means. Unethical practices are as unacceptable in activism as they are in agriculture.

Q Animal welfare issues and how to manage them might become the most critical "thing" for animal ag in the coming decade. Welfare activists are well funded, well organized and media savvy. They have discovered that they can influence Big Food companies by linking isolated cases of animal abuse with branded food products, forcing even the biggest retailers and food processors to run and hide. Hershey, McCain Foods and Campbell Soups have all felt the pressure. What's coming in the future, and how do we combat the attacks?

A This is an important question and the main reason I wanted to respond to your questions. Yes, animal welfare is critical. Yes, some activist groups are well funded and well organized. No, agriculture need not fear the future. A big reason for the past success of activists groups is their ability and effort to align their values with consumer values.

Let's be honest, for a long time, the ag community did a poor job of this. Today is a much different story. We're recognizing the need to communicate our values and improving public engagement. Social media is an invitation to every farmer and food company to demonstrate that our values align with consumers: Our practices are ethical, we care about the well-being of our animals and the environment and we are committed to raising healthy, affordable food to feed all of our families.

Additionally, food companies are striving to be more closely connected to their supply chains. As you noted, they have felt the pressure. Their increasing interest in animal welfare practices presents an opportunity for us, as farmers and veterinarians, to explain how our practices align with their values and those of their customers (consumers). Such conversations are becoming increasingly common — finally.

So, to answer your question directly: We combat the attacks with the truth and by upholding our values. When concern is raised about practices that really are in the best interest of the animals, we engage. If a legitimate animal care issue is raised, we own it and promise to improve it. I truly believe we will prevail if we are willing to engage in a manner that conveys and upholds our values.

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