In keeping with our review of trends, developments and challenges facing U.S. pork production, we must revisit the animal welfare issue.

It's important to acknowledge that many activist groups and issues are
interwoven. Groups rallying behind family farm, environmental, antibiotic, animal-rights issues and many more overlap, with the ultimate goal of dictating how you run your business, or in some cases, preventing you from doing so.

It's also important to note that while the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals tends to get all the attention, the animal welfare issue
today is more complicated than that. Customers (foodservice and grocery retailers) and the public want assurances that food-producing animals are raised and handled in certain ways. This applies to domestic and export customers alike.

Europe is further down the animal-welfare path than the United States. It's easy to point to Europe's welfare production edicts as being too severe. Many of the requirements have placed producers in a tenuous economic position and in some cases created problems for the animal. Still, Europe is now able to capitalize on some market niches, and cast doubts in the United States' direction as an animal-friendly product supplier.

We've seen a variety of U.S. companies start to respond to animal-rights pressures. Companies like McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's are going to take the high road on these kinds of issues before they become a customer concern. Grocers like Kroger have stepped in line, adopting animal-welfare standards for meat and poultry suppliers as well. Several other companies have had a taste of what's to come.

Foodservice and retail grocers will drive the animal welfare issue all the way to the farm. Recently, a New York Times writer purchased a beef calf intending to follow it all the way to the plate. His report is a topic for another time, but he made a very telling comment in a radio interview: "If you want to make changes in the food supply, pressuring McDonald's is a great place to start." He was referring to animal-handling practices in packing plants.

PETA is petitioning USDA to apply the Humane Slaughter Act to the farm. PETA argues that because food processing is the eventual goal of raising poultry and livestock, then the farm is part of the slaughter process and therefore, the Humane Slaughter Act applies.

The pork industry experts that I polled at the start of the year, cited gestation housing as a major, long-term challenge. A Florida test case could ban gestation crates. Regardless of the outcome, this topic will remain a point of debate and controversy. "Gestation crates are hard to justify to the general public," offered one industry expert.

The industry needs to avoid drawing the black-and-white conclusion that if gestation crates aren't allowed, then the only alternative is to put sows in pens. There may be other answers, such as a turn-around crate. It would be wise not to close our minds so quickly.

Several universities are conducting animal well-being research to find answers for pork production. The National Pork Board is developing a welfare-indexing system for use on the farm. That effort is on a fast-track schedule and is expected to be completed by late summer.

The industry will be getting answers. You need to be prepared to change protocols depending on those answers.

Some producers and companies will see the animal welfare issue as a product marketing opportunity. Some egg producers now dedicate barns or farms to production systems that meet animal-welfare standards in order to tap certain markets. Smithfield Foods is now working to get its production in line to meet the welfare standards of McDonald's and others.

You need to remain informed on this topic. A Web site – – serves as a watchdog against various activist groups, including PETA. But again, don't dump the animal welfare issue onto PETA alone. That will prove to be a mistake.

Sound like a broken record? Get used to it, animal welfare is here for the long haul.