I started a new file recently – on animal welfare – and it filled up quickly. I actually have several bulging files on the subject, but most date back to the late 1980s/early 1990s. There was a period of activity back then and I had the task of tracking it.

I attended several organized animal rights events and encountered a variety of activists. Their goals were extreme, and while their underlying objectives haven’t changed since then, their tactics have.

They are smarter today. Instead of trying to move the masses, they are applying tactical pressure. They also have more credibility, particularly when it comes to animal agriculture. The fact that agriculture continues to consolidate plays rightinto their hands. It lets them paint the picture of factory farms with broad strokes. Environmentalists, “family farm” groups and others have joined forces in an us-against-them approach – “them” being anyone who runs their farming operation as a business.

With each passing year, the U.S. public and lawmakers, are further removed from real-life agricultural experiences. That lack of understanding only makes animal rightists’ claims more credible.

Studies show that American’s want to feel confident that the animals producing their food have had a comfortable life. Animal handling expert, Temple Grandin, points out that for the pork industry, gestation crates present the greatest concern. People want the animals to be able to turn around. Grandin expects that gestation crates will someday be history, if not for the entire industry, certainly for those supplying to specific markets.

Europe has lead in terms of farm animal welfare practices, sometimes to the animals’ detriment. Most countries have some standards in place, but the pressure is only intensifying. The BSE debacle has helped legitimize the idea that outside forces need to regulate on-farm production.

The European Commission wants to amend animal welfare legislation specific to pig farming. The first item on its long list is gestation crates. Germany’s new food, farming and consumer protection minister has her sights set squarely on “intensive livestock” production.

It’s easy to say, “yeah, but that’s Europe.” True, but don’t dismiss it too quickly. Even Canada is looking for proactive solutions.

In the future, you will likely have to meet equivalent animal-rearing practices in order to export to certain countries. In other countries, the welfare card may determine who gets the export market share.

Animal welfare, at least in part, is tied to economics. Animal rightists don’t carry a very big stick with third-world countries. But everywhere in the world, countries are becoming more affluent. With that comes increased meat consumption – and concerns about animal treatment.

I am not for a moment suggesting that you don’t care about animal treatment and well-being. Research has shown that well-cared-for animals are healthier and more productive. Grandin has proven time and again that animal handling at slaughter influences end-product quality.

The error comes in the temptation to ignore or downplay the issue.

A while back a producer expressed concern that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was getting credit for McDonald’s establishing animal welfare standards for its meat and egg suppliers. It’s true that McDonald’s had a welfare program in place for packer/processors. But when PETA threatened to turn up the heat, the Golden Arches moved its program to the farm.

One look at PETA’s proposed "Murder King" campaign and it’s no surprise that Burger King quickly began organizing a committee to address animal welfare issues. Next on PETA’s hit list are Wendy’s and Denny’s, but it won’t stop there.

You can wish it away or ignore it all you want, but it won’t change the reality. Most national companies don’t want the hassles and negative publicity that a group like PETA can create. It’s smarter to respond proactively.

So, as you work to move further through the pork chain, identify niches and attempt to brand products, how you raise animals on the farm will become a marketing issue. Many certified pork production programs already include welfare criteria.

Animal welfare will become more of an issue to you and your business with each passing day.