MERCY for Animals (MFA) uses a fairly simple, straightforward strategy: Obtain some incriminating video of animal agriculture, and bundle it with insistent narrative, all while petitioning the world's largest food retailer to change its ways.
MFA intends to portray culpability (at least from its perspective) from both ends of the food system.
Mixing all the elements together is more dramatic. They seem to confound one another. The overarching goal is to leave the public with MFA's dark, draconian image of animal agriculture. Meat production is just yet another example of corporate exploitation.
However, I found myself walking away from the most recent video with a little different perspective from other undercover videos I've watched in the past.
My initial reaction was all about the element of surprise — or more appropriately, the lack thereof. MFA's recent video wasn't compelling.
My second thought turned to the intentional blurring of lines relative to the discussion about standard animal production practices versus proper animal care.
Given the talking points on MFA's website, the focus of the video is seemingly an attempt to pressure Wal-Mart Stores to alter its supply chain with respect to gestation crates.
That's a distinctly different conversation from much of what can be witnessed within the video. Animals can be neglected, abused and/or mistreated with or without gestation crates. In other words, gestation crates never have, and never will, alter the human element in animal husbandry.
The real problem in the video is that human element. That's best articulated by Purdue University's Dr. Candace Croney as part of her participation in an expert panel review sponsored by the Center for Food Integrity.
"There are far too many issues seen in this video, including the behaviors and attitudes of the caretakers, that are definitely not reflective of standard industry practice and that are just wrong," Croney said.
Similarly, Dr. John Deen of the University of Minnesota added, "What it comes down to is employee behavior, and that was problematic."
The shortfall in husbandry is predominately the result of poor employee training, oversight and timely feedback. Just like every industry and every workplace, problems always begin with the people. Nothing ever works correctly until we properly train and empower our employees — no matter what the job is.
Sure, the argument might be that it's hard to find good employees, or it's too expensive to train them. That just doesn't work here. Moreover, cheap employees cost money.
First, there's now an image problem to deal with. Ask any company that has dealt with crisis management, and they'll tell you it's expensive to salvage brand equity after the fact.
Second, and perhaps more important, good employees plus proper training equal realization of a whole new realm of efficiencies and productivity in the unit.
My guess is that we didn't really need MFA to find problems at the Pipestone unit that was the subject of the latest video. An analysis of production trends would have indicated that along the way.
There was some need for intervention, but there's inadequate monitoring and follow-up. If the employees are breaking the rules (and openly admitting it) in one area, they're probably doing it in other areas too.
Stated another way, in the absence of accountability, the employees are doing what's best for them, not the animals.
The principles of continuous improvement mandate consistent, timely and meaningful feedback. That prevents slippage on the human side; our tendency is often to find the easy way out — never mind the results.
No one describes that better than Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habit, when he writes, "When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making. It stops working so hard or diverts focus to other tasks. So, unless you deliberately fight a habit — unless you find new routines — the pattern will unfold automatically. However, simply understanding how habits work — learning the structure of the habit loop — makes them easier to control. Once you break a habit into its components, you can fiddle with the gears."
MFA would like us to believe that animal agriculture is broken and that everything about it is wrong, but the problem isn't animal agriculture; it's always about people. In this instance, for whatever reason, the employees somehow lost their way.
Constant training and effective leadership are essential. Best of all, they culminate in the development of empowered employees who perceive themselves as key stakeholders in the entire value chain.
That ultimately pays dividends for companies, employees and consumers, but most important, it results in follow-through, ensuring that animals receive the best care possible.
*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.