"Happy hogs are productive hogs" has long been the pork industry's anthem concerning animal welfare. The contention is that because stressed hogs aren't productive hogs, it is in the producers' best interests to minimize stress. And who's better qualified to determine what is stressful than the producer? While there's a lot of truth to that theory, there also are some holes. Stress does make hogs susceptible to disease, poor performance and meat quality problems, but the welfare issue goes beyond that.
As an industry, we point to science as the standard by which we should be judged. I'm a committed advocate of scientific proof, but agriculture does act as if science is always on our side. That may not always be the case. You need to be prepared to accept that science could prove some of our industry's practices wrong. Over the years, a few scientists have embraced the study of animal welfare. Still, there are many scientific stones left unturned.
Earlier this summer, I attended the American Society of Animal Science meeting where several animal-welfare related studies were discussed. What stood out was as technology advances, scientists will be able to evaluate areas never before imagined. Purdue University has teamed up with USDA's Livestock Behavior Unit to create the Food Animal Productivity and Well-being Center. There, scientists will conduct multi-disciplinary studies to find answers to animal well-being issues.
" It's not just about raising a healthy animal," says Paul Thompson, the center's director and a biochemist. " We are also considering quality of life and other ethical concerns." Public perception is another increasingly important aspect of the animal welfare issue. We all know that the vast majority of the U.S. public has little or no real-world experience or knowledge of farm life, let alone how hogs are raised and why. That gap will only continue to widen.
Sure, we can work to educate people – especially children – but the public draws a fine line between educating and promoting an agenda. Consumers – and I'm not talking about activists here – want to know that the animals producing their meat, milk and eggs were treated humanely. What's more, they have distinct opinions about what is humane.
Temple Grandin, Colorado State University animal behaviorist, has polled consumers and found that they have a strong, negative opinion of gestation stalls. Farrowing crates they understand, but it doesn't make sense to consumers that pregnant sows can't walk or turn around. Grandin predicts you will someday lose the gestation-crate battle. But that could mean simply redesigning crates so the sow can move around.
Yes, that would take up more facility room, but rather than standing firm on every point, you might have to sacrifice one thing for the good of the whole system. Every animal agriculture sector can expect to concede something – it's a matter of picking your battles. You don't want to end up like the European Union and have animal welfare standards forced upon you.
There's always the concern that if you give an inch, activists will demand more, but by compromising you come across to the masses as compassionate and cooperative. It's important not to confuse the public with activists.
McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Kroger are all adopting or considering animal welfare standards for their product suppliers. Kroger has chosen the more moderate Food Marketing Institute's animal handling guidelines, to which Grandin is an advisor. You can expect other foodservice and retail entities to follow.
I became interested in pork production by doing chores with my father. I learned a lot about animal handling and welfare then too. My father insisted on doing a few things that were more laborious for us, but were clearly better for the animals. In hindsight, I see that his practical animal-husbandry knowledge headed off some production problems.
Hindsight is a valuable thing – so is remembering that you are a food producer and that consumers have definite opinions about you and your product. Keeping those factors in mind would serve the industry well in dealing with animal welfare issues. Our anthem that happy hogs are productive hogs won't be enough to satisfy consumers in the future.