How does a human know when an animal is comfortable or when its needs are being met? You can’t ask the animal.

Does experience tell you; does science; or perhaps it’s a legislator’s, an activist’s or a consumer’s role to decide? The answer will largely depend on who you ask.

Animal well-being issues hit at the core of those most directly involved in animal agriculture, as their daily task is to care for the animals under their watch. What’s more, it’s a bitter pill when someone from the outside tries to tell you how to do your job.

But the animal well-being debate for pork production and processing is active and real, and fraught with emotion from all sides. Is there a middle ground? For the animals’ sake, let’s hope so.  

At the first Responsible Pork Symposium, a panel of experts shared their views on the topic.

Q: How do you define responsible pork production?

Curtis: A mal-adapted animal is a stressed animal. Performance is the most practical indicator of pigs’ state of being. We should not acquiesce to the demands of vegetarians, especially those as proxies to ethical activists.

Consumers today are leery of the foods they find in the supermarket, afraid that the animals did not experience well-being. They want to trust, but they also want to see that trust validated. For animal agriculture, total transparency from farm to fork is needed, and we’re a long way from it. 

The stage is set for good-faith talks between consumers and producers with the goal being a new set of rules by which all parties would abide. In the process, all parties should give and take as they hammer out a win/win social contract for the future.

Kopperud: Responsible pork production is a system that is science based and experience tempered. It embraces prudent, professional use of technology that has proven to be safe and necessary for the animal’s well-being and the producer’s economic well-being.

Success is quantifiable and measurable. These points lead to a safe, quality, abundant product that’s affordable and available, and meets consumers’ needs and wants.

Animal well-being is eventually going to be judged on measurements that can be explained to the public. The public continues to want assurances from producers. The retail sector needs assurances, education and explanation from producers. There’s too little balance in this discussion; it’s not all about the animal.

Shapiro: While it’s not the only issue we should talk about, the one that’s on most peoples’ minds— is it responsible to confine sows in gestation crates?

Science is important. You will often hear that the industry position is based on science and HSUS’ is emotion based. But no one has a monopoly on science; there are scientists on both sides.

We also have to keep in mind the common-sense view when we ask people, do you think it makes sense to keep a several-hundred-pound, social, intelligent animal confined nearly permanently in a 2-foot-wide crate where she is unable to turn around? The common argument is if we didn’t, these animals would attack each other. Nobody wants to see that, but it’s not appropriate to deny all behaviors to control one. We all know that good management practices can be used to reduce and virtually eliminate aggression.

Productivity is important, but we’ve bred these animals for hyper-productivity. The fact that they are producing isn’t a sign of good welfare. Hyper-productivity can sometimes be the animal-welfare problem.

Pfalzgraf: I represent the packers. As an industry, we have pretty much standardized our procedures so we do things about the same way. The packing industry is unique because we only own the animal for 2 to 3 hours during its lifetime. But we probably handle them the most. We load them on a truck, unload them at the facility, walk them to the scale, walk them to a pen, walk them to a single-file alley and walk them to the stunner.

Our responsibility is to move these hogs as properly as we can to reduce stress and anxiety. We spend a lot of time training people how to properly move the animal. We have very specific procedures that we can present to our customers, the public and consumers.

We’re also responsible for stunning the animal to induce immediate insensibility and to kill the animal before it regains sensibility. We perform internal audits, third-party audits and customers come in to see for themselves.

Rueff: Besides being a swine veterinarian and serving producer clients, I also own some pigs. There are some things in the industry that we do well and some that we can improve upon. There will be new things that we learn and adopt. We have to look at it as a continuum.

It’s important to keep in mind that the move to put pigs inside was not an abstract thought. It was because producers decided there had to be a better way to take care of animals. Today, all pigs have access to water — that was not always the case. We essentially never see nutritional defects; we’re doing a better job meeting pigs’ dietary needs. 

We try to keep pigs comfortable, so on cold or hot days those animals don’t notice the environmental stress. We don’t always get that right; it’s an area to continue to work on and improve.

Producers are more environmentally responsible than ever. When animals were outside, they were in the streams; there was runoff. Today, the manure is applied to farmland — we inject it into the ground.

We have disease challenges, but we also have eradicated many diseases that I used to deal with but no longer do.

We still have things that we can do better, such as euthanasia. Nobody likes to do it, but it’s a fact of life. So we have to address this issue and come up with a better solution to deal with it in a humane and timely way.

We’ve done many good things in 30 years. As we move forward, we have to be open to evidence that shows us better ways. 

Q: To what degree are you capturing the public’s desires for a responsible pork industry?

Kopperud: The accuracy of what the public wants is largely unknown. It’s confused with purchasing trends in the context of what folks can afford like natural and organic products.

If 2 percent of Americans claim to be vegan and another 5 percent claim to be vegetarian, that leaves 90 percent left out of the discussion. I’m less concerned about folks who can afford to shop where and when they wish. I’m greatly concerned about my definition of the public, which is folks who make daily decisions whether they can eat protein. We don’t talk with those people nearly enough. We talk to people who can pay extra for goods and think it’s a trend, when in fact it’s the niche.

Shapiro: I don’t think it’s true that people in the lower economic strata are not concerned about animal welfare. We don’t need to wonder what people are thinking; we can look to the polls — not HSUS polls.

A 2007 Oklahoma State University and American Farm Bureau Federation poll shows 64 percent of Americans oppose gestation crates; 75 percent say they would vote for a law in their state that would require farmers to treat their animals more humanely. Seventy-six percent disagree that low meat prices are more important than farm-animal well-being; 95 percent agree it’s important that farm animals are well cared for; 89 percent agree that food companies requiring farmers to treat their animals better are doing the right thing; 70 percent believe it doesn’t matter what it costs farmers. You may disagree with the responses, but you can’t ignore that this is what most Americans think.

When we talk about issues like gestation crates, that the public finds indefensible, the pork industry should get out in front and do what some companies are doing voluntarily; that is moving away from gestation crates.

When Florida and Arizona voters were given a choice, they banned gestation crates. Oregon has banned them; Smithfield, Maple Leaf and Colorado producers are moving in that direction. The trajectory is clear.

Curtis: What the public thinks does matter to me, but what the public thinks is not necessarily what the truth is. A national poll of uninformed and misinformed people does not impress me.

Who should find the answers? People who are naïve about a pig, or people who’ve studied and worked with pigs for 20, 30, 40 years?  

Pfalzgraf: When we talk about the slaughter of animals it’s difficult to get the public’s opinion. They say “we don’t want to know; just make sure you’re doing it right.” So it’s our responsibility to make sure we are. We do that with the American Meat Institute’s guidelines, which pretty much everyone in the industry follows.

As for accountability, the government regulates the slaughter industry. USDA and our customers watch us closely. We are required to have yearly audits, and we have customers come in and review our practices. Of course, we also have the activists who occasionally come in with hidden video to evaluate our practices.

Kopperud: When it comes to polling it depends on how the question was asked and who you ask. “Do you support humanely raised farm animals?” Who wouldn’t say yes? The American Farm Bureau poll is important and shows there are concerns. There are other polls that show Americans trust and seek assurances from farmers.

Shapiro: If you don’t believe the polls because you think the questions were asked a certain way, look at the votes that have been taken.

If the EU can get rid of gestation crates by 2013; if Smithfield can do it; 50 percent of Cargill’s sows aren’t in gestation crates; and Colorado producers can do it — it’s not a matter of saying people will go hungry if we don’t use gestation crates.

Q: Can market-driven or voluntary actions such as third-party oversight produce better or worse animal well-being?

Shapiro: The short answer is yes. There are the Animal Welfare Institute standards. Niman Ranch has about 600 farmers (beef and pork) who adhere to those. There are others. But we need to be careful of creating third-party audit programs that essentially codify the status quo. Anyone can come up with a third-party audit and say that you passed. But what are you passing? Those are more an attempt to assure consumers that everything is okay rather than attempt to legitimately improve animal welfare.

Kopperud: There’s tremendous value in third-party evaluations. What is beginning to confuse farmers and consumers is the array of standards. I disagree that our status quo systems in many cases cannot be audited and shown to provide consumers with assurances that there is a significant humane component in those systems. It doesn’t necessarily have to change to be a good system.  

Q: Are trade-offs in animal welfare acceptable?

Rueff: We need to remember that when people in a room come up with audits, ideas and procedures, that they have to connect to the farm. It’s not a matter of creating a checklist. Rather, those things need to educate and solve issues on the farm that we want to fix, and that the public understands we’re making an attempt to address something.

Pfalzgraf: In the slaughter industry, right now the biggest one is controlled-atmosphere stunning. It’s supposed to put the animal to sleep, quietly in 30 seconds, but that can vary due to many things, even genetics. You have to be concerned about what changes in that time. You’re talking about replacing electrical stunning, which is instant, regardless of the animal’s make up.

For the slaughter industry, we’ve got to use the science when we talk about trade-offs. Look at both sides and make an intelligent evaluation.

Shapiro: There are pros and cons to all systems, but that doesn’t mean the trade-offs are equal. With gestation crates the welfare ceiling is so low that even a well-managed system will have severe and total welfare problems for all of the animals involved, as you severely thwart natural behaviors.

The difference is when you’re not using gestation crates, or intensive confinement, many of the concerns can be addressed by better management practices.

Curtis: Trade-offs are not only acceptable, they’re inevitable. We interfere with the free expression by any animal once we decide to keep it.

The question then goes back to animal rights, and whether we have a right to keep an animal for human purposes. If we asked Americans, the vast majority would say yes.

Kopperud: The assumption that producers don’t modify or seek new systems to enhance an animal’s well-being is a huge myth. Many producers have tried a variety of gestation systems and have chosen the system they can operate effectively. Open systems are not necessarily higher welfare systems.       

Q: What is your responsibility to promote a constructive dialogue to find solutions and promote progress on this issue?

Rueff: First, we need to try to be objective and listen to both sides. We also need to come to an agreement on the end point. Is it about animal welfare or is it confused with vegetarianism? If it’s about banning gestation crates and putting sows in groups at 16 square feet per animal, then making it 35 feet, then 100 feet, that’s not an end point I could embrace. We need to continue to learn. I’m glad Paul is here, so we can hear his views.

Shapiro: HSUS, as the largest animal-protection group in the world, clearly has an obligation to foster dialogue. We may respectfully agree to disagree on some issues, perhaps on many. There are issues that we can find common ground on; gestation crates are a clear example of that. The dialogue itself has merit; this isn’t a personal matter.

Kopperud: It’s difficult to have constructive dialogue in the midst of hype, politics and other tools that are brought to bear. It’s one thing to ask “How can we do this better?” It’s another to be told “You will stop doing what you’re doing and you will do it our way.”

Curtis: Paul is fixated on gestation crates. It’s not at all clear that the EU will end up banning gestation crates. It’s unsettled science. It’s also not clear that Smithfield is going to find it profitable and sustainable. They’ve moved ahead; other groups have too. But it’s going to take a whole lot more research on these sow systems to have all animals’ welfare be good.

Q: How do we connect consumers with the big-picture issues?

Kopperud: That’s the challenge. Animal agriculture has screwed up in the last 30 years in allowing the chain to fragment and distance itself from each other and from consumers. We haven’t provided consumers with what they need to know about producers and pork production to help them make informed decisions. We let others do it for us.

The producer who brings you America’s Cut is a bigger component of that product than they’re being given credit. We’ve forgotten the producer and the process, and they are the two most important factors today.

Q: How can the industry be more transparent?

Rueff: It’s difficult to massively educate people. We host groups to educate and show them what we do. The vast majority are pleasantly surprised by what they see. We have to be willing to open up and show consumers our processes.

Curtis: As the industry becomes increasingly consolidated there has been too much proprietary information. We should not be afraid of having any consumer walk through our hog barns. How many of you would be comfortable with that?

Q: How do you get a common-ground discussion going?

Shapiro: HSUS is working to improve farm-animal welfare at the farm, during transport and at slaughter. We’re working to enact laws and connect producers with retailers who want to provide high-welfare products. Wolfgang Puck, Burger King, Hardees and other companies are looking to improve animal welfare. Look at Smithfield; who would ever think I’d be applauding Smithfield?

My role is not to tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. This forum is a good stating point.

Kopperud: The part of the questions that goes to putting producers out of business is the concern. In a recent issue of DVM magazine, Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president, said “our job is to ensure that Americans eat fewer animals.” Others on the HSUS staff have said “our job is to put xyz industry out of business.”

Curtis: I’ve been thinking about how a dialogue might be structured at the national level.

But who are you going to bring to the table? When it comes to agreeing on a new social contract between consumers and producers, we can’t entertain people on the fringes — we have people on the fringes in our industry, too.

Kopperud: We’ve tried to sit down with animal-rights organizations, but too often it’s been “Here are our nine demands. You must hit all nine; seven isn’t good enough.” Having said that, just because it’s failed in the past does not mean it would fail in the future.