Commentary: Giving thanks

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I love the Thanksgiving holiday. It’s one of the few times each year that we really take the time to recognize how fortunate we are to be alive in the USA in the 21st century. The material wealth, food security, peace and prosperity we take for granted most of the other 364 days of the year are but the lofty, heartfelt aspirations of much of the rest of the seven billion people with whom we share this planet.

Despite our problems, our struggling economy, our partisan politics, our cultural and religious animosities that divide, rather than unite us as nation, as Americans we have a long litany of things for which we can spend Thanksgiving Day expressing our gratitude.

Here are three things for which I’m particularly grateful:

1). Animal welfare issues. Yes, we have extremists on both side of the debate—the implacable activists, “vegan abolitionists,” as Green Mountain College Professor Steven Fesmire labels them, who will never accept anything less than elimination of livestock production, and the industry attack dogs whose only goal is to criticize, marginalize and demonize anyone who pipes up about any aspect of animal agriculture.

But as a result of more than three decades of often acrimonious discussion, the industry has changed its methods and policies in many positive ways. I’m here to testify that when I started as a rookie reporter in this business, conditions at many of the smaller, less well-run packing plants were horrendous. Workers were poorly trained, abuses we no longer tolerate ran rampant and management cared solely about the bottom line, dismissing as “idiots” anyone who criticized industry practices.

Virtually all of those plants—and their owners—are out of the business today, and the operations that remain are not only more efficient but arguably more humane, for both animals and people. And for that, I believe everyone in this industry should be grateful.

2). Environmental debates. We’ve all had our fill of the “cattle are the leading cause of global warming” nonsense, but over the years, the various studies, reports and even anti-industry campaigns warning about climate change, deforestation and resource depletion have not only leveraged most companies to adopt “greener,” more sustainable business tactics, it’s opened the door to legitimate conversations about how best to optimize the use of land, water and energy resources necessary to feed a burgeoning world population.

Partly as a result of this never-ending debate, “sustainability” has morphed from a marketing buzzword to a business priority, not just in food production but across virtually every manufacturing sector. That’s beneficial to all of society, and the eco-activists who keep up the pressure for change deserve a sincere thank you—at least for a few minutes tomorrow.

3). Nutritional controversies. I think back some 20 years to the initial debates over mandatory nutrition labeling processed meats, a regulation bitterly opposed by almost everyone drawing a paycheck at a meat or poultry processing company. What eventually occurred when the regulations were implemented, however, proved to be a boon to industry. Once the actual calories and fat percentages were displayed on lunchmeat and other processed meats, not only did marketers have a positive message to promote, but the mandate paved the way for a rollout of low-fat and even no-fat products whose remarkable nutritional values could now be prominently displayed on the packaging.

Beyond that, the constant focus by health authorities and veggie activists on meat’s (alleged) dietary downside provides a context for industry to fight facts with facts. So many arguments of importance to how people perceive meat-eating are emotionally based—intentionally so, as activists understand all too well how to manipulate public opinion. Debating the calories, fat content and nutritional composition of today’s meat and poultry products is one conversation that industry could, and should, dominate.

For all these reasons, I’m grateful to be an observer and a reporter engaged with one of the most important, most fundamental industries on earth. Career-wise, I’m grateful for one more reason: When you cover animal agriculture and meat and poultry production, there’s never a dull day.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of our readers, our supporters and yes, our critics.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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