It's a battle, a constant and consistent battle to make sure animals in agriculture have the best possible care. Not to be a crepe-hanging snowflake on the issue but abuse on the farm quickly becomes a national scandal. Two dozen starving cats living in squalor? Yeah, that's a local news item featuring a video of hazmat suited rescue workers and clucking 'talking heads' on tonight's newscast saying something about 'crazy cat ladies.'
While the crazy cat lady story goes away quickly and never makes network news status, the abused hog story gets national attention and tons of ink for radical groups like the oxymoronically named People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the curiously 'through-the-backdoor' activities of Direct Action Everywhere and the tinpot dictator-styled militant attitude of the Animal Liberation Front.
The animal ag industry knows the rules and regulations behind good animal welfare. My friend Temple Grandin has been preaching it long and loud for more than 30 years. The North American Meat Institute conducts the well-attended and very important Animal Care & Handling Conference every fall, always featuring the latest wisdom from Temple. I've attended almost all of them and played a small role in bringing the first one to Kansas City almost 20 years ago.
Regular attendees include corporate CEOs and senior management, plant managers and operations personnel, newly hired livestock handlers, producers, animal welfare auditors, retail and restaurant companies - anyone with direct, hands-on responsibility for animal welfare all the way up to those "C" suite nabobs who issue the marching orders.
I've seen many company-written rules about how to handle an animal and they are all good. I've talked with a lot of farmers and ranchers about their practices and they are all good. Still, reports of serious transgressions, real or imagined, by some fervid anti-ag group, keep coming. Where is animal agriculture failing? Are we talking about little cracks that need just a bit of extra care or a massive schism that requires immediate and drastic overhaul? The radical groups are busy little bees, assuring the general public that the problem is endemic and it's well-past time to end their vividly imagined horrors of animal agriculture. They say the industry does not care about the welfare of its cute little furry and feathered charges - never did, never will.
But it is not endemic, just cracks that need to be sealed and the few bad actors rooted out. It is not a massive schism requiring the immediate death of an industry. In all my discussions with people in the animal ag industry, I've never spoken to anyone who says, on or off the record, that animal welfare is a waste of time. They understand that good practices make it easier to manage their herds and flocks, are safer for everyone with hands-on responsibility and produces a much better product. But, in spite of more and better knowledge and access to all the right tools, bad practices still happen and the lunatic fringe always seems to be on hand to capture the worst of it.
The list of offenders include upstanding ag citizens like Fair Oaks Farms, Maple Lodge Farms, Eggland's Best and Butterball. Step back a few years and remember the egregious Hallmark Meat Packing scandal, one of the worst cases in recent history. Outside the industry was the Michael Vick dog fighting debacle and the Ringling Brothers elephant case. All of them - the big guys and little guys - have fallen prey to undercover video, most of it cleverly and professionally edited for maximum emotional impact.
We know the rules, we've implemented the rules and then, inevitably, someone breaks the rules and everyone in animal ag takes a nasty sewage shower. What gives?
First, let me quote that great industry sage, Barry Carpenter, recently retired CEO of the North American Meat Institute. I was talking with him a few years ago about a slate of 'burdensome' rules and regulations issued by the federal government. He said he wasn't overly concerned. "Those new rules and regs only effect about 1% of the people in the meat business," he said. "The good guys - the 99% - are already doing what's necessary and more."
And that same statement fits at least 99% of the people who are responsible for the welfare of animals in agriculture. They are professionals who know what to do and they take their jobs seriously. So, where are we failing? Two places come to mind. First, training must be followed by direct observation. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, "Trust your employees to do the right thing, but get out there on a regular basis to verify."
It used to be called MBWA (management by walking around) and it’s still the most effective way to make sure employees are doing as they should.
And understand that training is NOT a half-day in front of a monitor and then it's over and done. It must be reinforced regularly and that video your staff put together a few years ago? It's probably out-of-date and what new things you learned at the Animal Care & Handling Conference in mid-October ought to be incorporated by December.
Second, mind your hiring practices. Under no circumstances should you hire someone just because he or she is a warm body. Make sure your new hires know what's expected of them and have the knowledge and fortitude to just do it. No shortcuts. No 'looking the other way' when something bad happens. Because your business and the reputation of an entire industry hinges on the transgressions of a very few bad guys. When it comes to animal welfare, we're in the zero tolerance zone: one strike and you're out. There are no second strikes.