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4 Questions About Animal Welfare Status

Farm animal activist target several industry segments; you can assume they're watching you, too.

Somebody’s always watching. Drive through an intersection, walk into the bank, or fill up the gas tank, and there’s a camera running. 

While there might not be one in your back pasture, it’s still wise to apply the security camera mentality to your animal-care practices: Assume they see you.

At the Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit meeting this year, that was a take-home point. This organization of farms, businesses, and commodity groups was formed to counter some of the negative chat about animal welfare. “If you produce food, you’re a potential target of food activists,” one of the summit speakers concluded.

Here are four questions and answers on the status of animal welfare activism.

1. Who are the activist groups?

While PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) might be the best known, several others have similar agendas – less meat, vegetarian, or full vegan. They include the Humane Society of the United States, Mercy for Animals, The Humane League, Compassion Over Killing, and Animal Equality.

They’re all well organized and well funded, and they want to dictate the animal welfare agenda.

2. Who gets their attention?

A few years ago, veal calves were on their radar. Confinement sow gestation crates followed and then caged laying hens. 

Now, they’re giving a lot of attention to meat chickens. They’re demanding more space in grower houses, more natural light, and slower-growing chickens. 

Yes, slower-growing chickens. They propose that 45 grams per day (rather than 60) is more humane. That’s because fast-growing chickens outgrow their bone structure and cardiovascular systems, resulting in high mortality. 

Yet, counter chicken scientists, two decades of production data and research don’t support this. Chicken survivability in grower houses is quite high – around 97%.

Don’t dismiss this as a chicken-only issue. Consider the dairy industry. Cows are constantly bred and fed to produce even more milk; they’re milked by automation several times a day; feet and legs are major health issues. It doesn’t mean the cows are abused, but could the activists exploit it?

3. What should you do?

Transparency is first. Many meat industry observers subscribe to the 10-10-80 rule: 10% of people are meat lovers; 10% don’t eat meat and can’t be swayed; 80% in the moveable middle like meat but want to know farm animals are treated humanely.  

You may not be able to open your pastures and barns to tourists, but you can expose your operation to a third-party audit. An accredited consultant visits and verifies that your practices meet or exceed industry standards. 

American Humane is one such organization. “You can take our certification to consumers and say, ‘We’re doing things in the right and humane way,’ ” says American Humane’s Jack Hubbard.

The organization certifies that your animals have adequate air, water, and feed; sufficient space to prevent injuries; effective health care; and sensible handling to avoid suffering.

4. What other points can counter the activists?

One is sustainable food production. Slower-growing animals, for example, will have increased water and feed use, and even increased trucking demands.

More important may be the cost of food, particularly to low-income consumers. 

Diane Sullivan is a former homeless Boston resident who now advocates for the rights of low-income people. She came to the summit to argue that many animal welfare demands unfairly drive up the cost of food. Slow growth, for instance, may add 30% to retail prices.

“I don’t want to be cruel to animals, but I refuse to be cruel to people,” she says. 

She supports sensible farm technologies that keep food affordable, and she now shares that sentiment frequently with consumer and legislative audiences.

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