Few issues in this relatively young year of 2015 have rocked the industry like the New York Times exposé of alleged animal cruelty at USDA’s premier research facility in Clay Center, Neb.
The charges leveled by a former veterinarian posted at the Meat Animal Research Center included piglets from what were described as “unnaturally large litters” getting crushed by sows; deformed calves born to cows bred to birth twins and triplets; and probably the most troubling, pasture-born lambs left to die of exposure as part of an “Easy Care” sheep program aimed developing a breed able to survive without the housing and veterinary care that’s often unavailable in remote grazing areas.
Plenty of industry officials I respect, including the former director of the center, refuted the Times’ charges and took me to task for echoing what the newspaper published.
Just talk to the people who work there, they urged. Then you’ll understand the real story.
Honestly? I tried, but with an ongoing USDA investigation underway, nobody’s talking. Even after USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak releases the findings of the department’s investigation, it’s doubtful anyone’s going to be very vocal about what did, or didn’t, actually go on at the center.
The keys to the controversy
Instead let me offer three concepts that I would contend are critical to dealing with this entire episode.
The first is finding an equilibrium between all-out efforts to foster productivity and the recognition of the effects of such initiatives on the animals themselves. A better balance equilibrium between efficiency and husbandry, shall we say.
Second is sensitivity to public perceptions. Plenty of people inside the industry see nothing wrong with piglets or lambs that are “sacrificed” in the name of feeding the world. Such an attitude ends up sounding awfully tone deaf to the millions of consumers who believe that simply eating less meat would solve both problems.
And finally, I would suggest transparency. If experiments or research have to be kept under wraps, it suggests that certain aspects of the project are suspect. The principle is pretty simple: If something causes concerns about publicity, there’s reason to be concerned.
And that’s at the heart of what I have been trying — apparently unsuccessfully — to communicate regarding the so-called scandal in Nebraska: Even if USDA’s investigation comes up empty, few people are going to bother reading their report, and even fewer would believe it.
Not because I’m lazy, but because it bears repeating, I’ll excerpt what I wrote a couple months ago:
“If even some of the charges levied against the manner in which certain projects at Clay Center were conducted are accurate, I’m inclined to believe that the proverbial line was crossed.
“It is true that a huge volume of positive research has been conducted over the years at the center. But no matter how much reputable work was done, the scales don’t balance if even a handful of other projects led to unnecessary animal suffering and death.
“Because that’s how activists characterize the industry’s very existence — barbaric — and it’s nothing short of tragic when well-meaning scientists and researchers provide them with ammunition.”
And that’s the point: Even if all the charges made by a disgruntled veterinarian eventually determined to be unfounded, damage — serious damage — to the industry’s image and credibility has already been done.
That’s the real scandal.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.