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Is on-farm video surveillance the answer?

Calls for increased transparency relative to U.S. food animal production have increased, prompting renewed support for on-farm video-surveillance.

It is now common knowledge that the U.S. public is increasingly attentive to how food is produced, and that growing interest in ethical consumerism is leading to support for what is viewed to be socially responsible animal production.
Simultaneously, there appears to be the persistent belief by many that agricultural animals are routinely mistreated in large scale, intensive production and that there is insufficient oversight of their care and well-being.

The spate of undercover video investigations on U.S. livestock and poultry farms over the past few years has no doubt fueled such concerns. The “ag-gag” legislative response to trespassers and others making and releasing such videos has led to backlash that has incrementally worsened perceptions that those involved in U.S. food animal production have “something to hide” and are willing to use the legal system to protect bad actors or actions. In fact, a recent study by Robbins and colleagues at the University of British Columbia has demonstrated that ag-gag laws not only worsen perceptions of farmers and animal welfare, but they also increase support for further animal welfare regulations.

Unsurprisingly, calls for increased transparency relative to U.S. food animal production have increased, prompting renewed support for the idea of mandatory on-farm video surveillance. Retailers and other food sectors sourcing animal products may feel compelled to require video surveillance of farms supplying product to them, particularly if they have already been linked to an undercover video.

However, in addition to benefits, there are potential pitfalls of on-farm video surveillance that should be considered.

Among the obvious potential advantages of recording farm animal care procedures is the ability to quickly detect and correct deviations from accepted best practices and to improve caretaker compliance in this regard. Several studies in human medicine and foodservice have demonstrated such benefits. More important, video recording of caretakers has been shown to be of particular use in employee training; this would likely result in tangible animal welfare benefits if used correspondingly on farms. In addition, improved public perception of companies requiring such surveillance is foreseeable. Food companies are likely to be publicly lauded for proactive efforts to improve on-farm animal care practices and inspire their competitors to do likewise.

Yet, the extent to which positive perception of such action may translate into consumer purchasing is uncertain. The latter may be impacted by a number of factors, including perception of the company’s overall brand integrity. In addition, studies led by agricultural economists at Michigan State University and Purdue University indicate that consumer willingness to pay for animal welfare attributes varies depending on the product. For example, work conducted by Nicole Widmar and David Ortega have reported differences in willingness to pay for enhanced welfare attributes between yogurt and ice cream.

More significant risks associated with on-farm video surveillance exist. First, the costs and logistics of purchasing, installing, monitoring and appropriately utilizing surveillance equipment and data must be thoroughly reviewed, and some farms may be unable to bear the associated costs. Placement and maintenance of cameras in barns can be challenging. Accumulation of dust and moisture, for instance, can impair both the visibility of images and the functionality of recording equipment. The frequency, nature and location of recording and downloading videos must be practical and feasible for farm managers or those tasked with surveillance. The implications of securing and retaining video data also require attention.

Standard operating procedures must be established and diligently followed for communicating about, implementing and acting upon video surveillance to avoid legal and ethical problems. These include issues associated with facility caretaker and visitor privacy, as well as potential reporting requirements if animal abuse is documented. Any of these factors individually can contribute to poor workplace morale and complicate existing employee supervision and managerial oversight challenges.

Finally, companies must seriously consider the possibility that video surveillance in and of itself may not evoke the expected changes in improved compliance with on-farm best practices for animal care. It is not uncommon for people to become habituated to the presence of cameras and lapse or relapse into unacceptable behavior without diligent, daily video review and rapid feedback. The risks to perceived brand integrity, consumer trust and purchasing patterns under such circumstances cannot be overstated. Aside from producing documentation that could be used against itself and those to whom it supplies, a facility operating this way would inevitably bolster the notion that responsible animal production is an oxymoron and reinforce the view that animal agriculture cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Societal impetus to pursue additional oversight of farm animal care would almost certainly increase. Thus, any corporation considering mandating on-farm video surveillance, particularly as a competitive advantage strategy, should be fully aware of the risks as well as the benefits and develop a plan for careful implementation.

Candace Croney, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Animal Welfare Science and associate professor, animal behavior and well-being, department of comparative pathobiology and department of animal sciences, at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.

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