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Why the Humane Society Says It Gets a Bad Rap from the Livestock Industry
Scott Beckstead’s bond with animals synchs with farmers and ranchers. He showed cattle as a high school FFAer while growing up on an Idaho farm. He says his love for animals continues to this day.
“I am an avid horseman,” he says. “I saddle up and ride. I think it is a marvelous atmosphere. I like him, he likes me, and I give him the best possible life he can have. He gives me everything he has.” It’s his employer, though, that may arch the eyebrows of many farmers and ranchers.
Beckstead is rural policy director for the group that many livestock producers and livestock organizations love to hate, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He says, though, that he and the HSUS have no desire to end animal agriculture.
“I enjoy working with farmers and ranchers,” he says. “We have no desire to put those people out of business. What we would like to see is an end to industrial animal agriculture. We owe those animals the best life possible.”
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Farmer Advisory Councils
HSUS still focuses on programs “which focus on the cruelty of intensive confinement systems,” he says. But it’s also branched out into the farm community by forming state and national agriculture advisory councils.
“The organization realized that we were confronting farm animal cruelty from the demand side, but not from the supply side," he says. "And so, the decision was made to start building relationships with farmers and ranchers who embrace animal welfare as a central component of how they do business.”
He says the move drew much backlash from the vegan community. (There are different types and definitions of vegans, but one common thread is the avoidance of animal product consumption.)
“We have probably taken more heat from them than from a lot of people in the agricultural sector,” he says. “But in retrospect, it was absolutely the right move. We reached out to these producers and we look to them for advice on best standards for humane goals and husbandry. In exchange, we provide them with an amplified voice/platform to promote the good work they are doing, in doing production in ways that are humane.”
Chris Peterson, a Mason City, Iowa, pork producer, began working with the HSUS on its Iowa Agriculture Advisory Council following conversations with Joe Maxwell, executive director for the Organization for Competitive Markets, who is also a former lieutenant governor of Missouri and has done work with the HSUS.
“We had a good conversation as to what HSUS stands for,” Peterson says. “And I guess I agree with 80% of what they say, so I started working with them. They want animal husbandry, taking care of animals properly, which I don’t have a problem with. I have heartburn with some of their positions, but unlike the Farm Bureau, the Humane Society has not caused any independent pork farmers to go out of business.”
Peterson adds he has bigger problems with Farm Bureau and state and national pork groups regarding market concentration issues and Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) “There are some wonderful people on the council,” he adds. “It is like any other organization, in that there are also some people I really don’t care for. But that is just the world we live in today.
“The Farm Bureau will say, ‘well, they want everyone go back to pastured pork’, and I get accused of that, too,” he adds. Overall, though, he says it is a group of like-minded individual producers who stand up for traditional independent family farm agriculture.
“The independent producer is not getting his fair share and a market to sell into,” he says. “That is the big problem today.”
The Animal Agricultural Alliance, a nonprofit group of food industry stakeholders, sees the purpose of the farmer councils differently.
“From our perspective, these councils are one step in a strategy to depict HSUS as supporting small family farms that ‘practice and promote higher animal welfare standards within their operations’ and opposing ‘factory farms,”” says Hannah Thompson-Weeman, vice president of communications for the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a nonprofit group of food industry stakeholders.
The Alliance released this statement regarding the farmer councils in May 2016.
“It is not surprising to see HSUS continue to find ways to mislead consumers, restaurants and retailers and the media about its true intentions --taking milk, meat and eggs off of our plates. HSUS' efforts are nothing more than a front to appear engaged with farmers and ranchers. Anyone considering aligning themselves with HSUS or any other animal rights activist organization needs to dig deeper than what these groups say in talking points or on their websites --something the Alliance can help you to do. While today HSUS may be acting like the ally of the producers on this council, the tides will no doubt turn as the organization moves on to target other production methods --a lesson some brands have learned in trying to appease it.
“We would encourage everyone to support the credible groups that work hard every day to safeguard animal well-being, including Alliance member organizations like the American Humane Association, national commodity groups and many others who have developed guidelines--relying on third-party experts, veterinarians and animal scientists--for producers to follow.”
The Veal Industry Impact
One industry that’s been impacted by the HSUS has been veal production, says Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of the Alliance.
“The HSUS completely mischaracterizes what a veal calf looks like,” she says. When you see a (HSUS) picture and video, you see housing systems that haven’t been used in the U.S. for the least 40 years. Yet, they continue to pick on the veal industry that is small, has few producers, and is not as common a food product for people and their families.”
In reality, the veal industry has had animal care guidelines in place for nearly 20 years, says Johnson Smith.
“Secondly, the industry agreed on its own that they would no longer use individual stalls,” she says. “The stalls do not look like the tiny veal calf in the stall that was used 40 years ago. It was not even common among farmers back then."
The industry eliminated individual stalls due to public concern keyed by the HSUS and the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), says Johnson Smith. The reason why veal calves were separated is because their immune system is initially weak, she notes.
“They were separated until their immune system had time to strengthen,” she says. “It gives them a better opportunity to stay healthy and allows the farmer to give them individual care and keep much better records and provide the correct amount of diet and milk replacer to ensure they are getting proper nutrients. Now, they are raised in group housing, which is harder on the animals.”