I may be biased, but pork producers have long been animal agriculture’s most innovative bunch. In looking around at other species, I’ve always taken great pride in the pork industry’s foresight and its ability to recognize, respond and commit to change.

You changed the hog to produce a leaner, more consistent, higher quality product than that of 20 years ago. Domestic consumers’ consumption patterns, their recognition and recall of Pork: The Other White Meat, as well as the growth in international sales are testimonies of your ability to adjust and market your product.

But while there is less consumer dissatisfaction with your product today, there are more questions — even approaching dissatisfaction — about you, the producer.

Some will say that’s due in part because promoting the product has been a priority and the producer has been forgotten. Others will say it’s because pork production has shifted from an agrarian model to an industrial model. Both are correct.

The price you’ve paid is a growing lack of trust. It has left consumers asking: “Who are you?” and “Why should I trust what you do and say?”

It has allowed activist groups, specifically animal-welfare activists, to fill in the blanks. Consumers are more likely to trust activists because they’ve marketed themselves as being on the consumers’ side. Institutions like government (think Katrina or pick from a plethora of scandals) and corporations (think Enron) have helped squander public trust.

Today’s consumers have more choices than ever, and they will increasingly seek out products, goods and services that they trust. By trust they mean: “Do you share my values and ethics?” and “Can I count on you to do the right thing?”

Once again, the pork industry is stepping out front. At last month’s Pork Industry Forum, Pork Act and National Pork Producers Council delegates reviewed and endorsed “Ethical Principles for U.S. Pork Producers.” The plan is to spend the next year discussing the concept and details with fellow pork producers, allowing for adjustments at next year’s Pork Industry Forum.

The principles outline “what we believe; it’s not a prescriptive to how we manage,” notes one pork producer.

It starts with a preamble: “U.S. pork producers recognize our obligation to build and maintain the trust of customers and the public in our products and our practices. To promote confidence in what we do and how we do it, we affirm the following ethical principles.”

  • Food Safety: Use management practices consistent with producing safe food. Manage the health of the herd to produce safe food. Manage technology to produce safe food.
  • Animal Well-being: Provide feed, water and an environment that promotes our animals’ well-being. Provide proper care, handling and transportation for pigs at each life stage. Protect pig health and provide appropriate treatment, including veterinary care. Use approved practices to euthanize, in a timely manner, sick or injured pigs that fail to respond to treatment.
  • Environment: Manage manure as a valuable resource and use in a manner that safeguards air and water quality. Manage air quality from production facilities to minimize the impact on neighbors and the community. Manage operations to protect natural resources.
  • Employee Care: Provide a work environment that promotes employees’ health and safety. Educate employees on the Ethical Principles for U.S. Pork Producers and prepare them to meet their obligations accordingly. Provide a work environment where employees are treated fairly and with respect.
  • Communities in Which We Operate: Recognize that being welcomed and appreciated by the community must be earned and maintained. Acknowledge that our practices can affect community trust in pork production. Operate in a manner that protects the environment and public health. Actively participate in building a strong community. Acknowledge community concerns and address them honestly and sincerely.
  • Public health: Use management practices consistent with producing safe food. Manage animal-health products to protect public health. Manage manure and air quality to protect public health.

These ethical principles are a start. But like many producer-related programs, the industry doesn’t always do an effective job of communicating the details to the right people — customers, consumers and even legislators.

Promoting the producer and the process may be more important than promoting the product today — the key word being today. Things have changed; consumers’ trust in you has weakened.

Now, before you get all ruffled up about someone telling you what you need to believe or embrace ethically, ask yourself if you want your fellow pork producers to set the standards or do you want customers, legislators or activists to do it?

An important factor in this is follow-through. If these ethical principles are the first stage in a multi-stage approach, then the industry is leading once again. If the effort does not eventually include review, enforcement and penalty processes, then they are simply words — or at least they will be viewed that way. 

You have to show the public that you’re sincere, not just tell them.