The Tyson letter - what does it mean?

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Editor’s Note: Steve Weiss is President of Value Added Science and Technologies, and works closely with swine producer leadership in the U.S. and Canadian swine industries. He wrote the following letter in response to recent correspondence from Tyson Foods. It is an important call-to-action for the industry.

Tyson Foods recently sent a letter to pork producers who sell or raise hogs for Tyson, which sets forth Tyson's views on certain production practices. In my countless conversations with producers (with both large and small operations) and other industry players in the past week, it is clear that the letter has understandably caused great concern within the pork industry. It represents a departure from certain of Tyson’s previously stated positions and, although it doesn’t make many specific demands on producers – it attempts to establish future expectations for certain animal-care practices, expectations that are somewhat nebulous and do not acknowledge existing veterinarian-approved practices. The letter appears instead to simply be an attempt to appease animal rights activists. 

Other than perhaps as an attempt to protect its brand from continued activist attack, it is unclear why Tyson would want to be perceived as caving in to the blackmail efforts of organizations - HSUS and its vegan allies - whose stated goal is to eliminate the meat industry in the United States, including Tyson. While we might try to understand the letter as an attempt to lessen activist pressure and support Tyson's sales department, history has shown that appeasement of animal rights activists is not realistic, or even possible. Fortunately, the letter has only two firm requirements, and then only for the relatively small number of producers who produce piglets for Tyson under contract. Unfortunately, a decision to address a short-term threat can have much larger negative long-term implications. We are hopeful that, in this case, given the elements of Tyson’s communication and the resolve of the industry, the letter will have no long-term adverse effect.

First, here is what each point of the Tyson letter actually says:

Sow Housing. Tyson is endorsing—but not requiring—changes to future sow housing. There is no announced intention to change sourcing relationships with independent producers if current housing formats using individual maternity pens (IMPs) continue to be used even for new housing.  Tyson is asking that sows be allowed to stand up, lie down, turn around, and stretch their legs. Current standard individual maternity pen housing provides three of these four prerequisites already, and there is nothing – except for animal rights activists’ attempts at anthropomorphism (ascribing human thoughts/desires on animals) – that supports the contention that the fourth would improve animal welfare. Tyson’s flexibility is important, since it allows for input from producers and veterinarians, and IMPs are veterinarian-approved.  There continues to be overwhelming evidence from veterinarians and producers that both open pens and IMPs can serve the needs of pregnant sows. Tyson appears to recognize and appreciate this fact, despite the position of HSUS and other animal rights groups.

Video Monitoring. Tyson urges producers to install video-monitoring systems in their sow farms, and is specifically asking its own contract sow farm owners to install such systems by the end of 2014. A number of industry advocates have already promoted this idea in line with increased transparency. However, Tyson's position is unfortunately vague and leaves more questions than answers. Industry experts know that monitoring a fixed processing line in a packing plant is far different than monitoring a multi-building, multi-room sow farm. Camera usage and coverage and specific monitoring requirements, among other issues, are not discussed.  A "one size fits all" approach appears ill-suited for this purpose. We expect that Tyson will at some point talk to its producers and industry experts to determine what makes sense in terms of video monitoring that will actually serve to improve animal welfare and support the people who produce pork for the world.

Castration and Tail Docking. Tyson wants producers to start using pain mitigation during these procedures. There currently are no drugs approved by the federal government for this. Tyson has pledged to fund "research" into pain mitigation, but without an approved drug, it isn’t clear what (if any) changes can even be required of producers, both now and for the foreseeable future.

Euthanasia. Tyson is requiring that its contract piglet producers stop using manual blunt-force euthanasia as a primary method of euthanasia for non-viable piglets by the end of 2014.  Tyson asks that these producers find an alternative method, which is actually the only element in Tyson’s letter that is consistent with American Veterinary Medical Association (AMVA) recommendations. While many producers have moved to different euthanasia methods, AMVA itself acknowledges that blunt-force trauma, properly administered, is a humane euthanasia method for non-viable piglets. This remains true, even though animal rights activists have used undercover videos that confirm what we already are painfully aware of: Ending the life of a non-viable animal is unpleasant and unappealing, regardless of the humane method used.

Second, let’s talk about the resolve of the industry to do the right thing. 

Producing safe, affordable protein for the growing global population in a system that is sustainable and centered around animal welfare is what swine producers do, plain and simple.  The resolve of U.S. and Canadian producers to continue to improve and to care for their animals trumps the unfair attacks to which the industry is continually subjected.

Any system, whether a processing plant, a retail operation, even an office environment, can be made to look bad when a zealot – while attempting to incite people and stage video footage – will film for weeks and months and boil all this footage down to two to three minutes of "bad" examples, usually taken out of context. In this context, it is unfortunate that leaders of companies, when threatened with this footage, will sometimes (futilely) attempt to appease the very activists who want them to cease business or radically change their operations. And when one company succumbs to these tactics, it simply increases pressure on the others.

Granted, the Tyson letter is short on specific commitments. As a result, HSUS has already criticized Tyson’s letter as a baby-step forward. However, there is a real danger – if other processors and food companies decide to engage in this “race to the bottom” – that there are adverse long-term implications for the industry, for animal welfare and for the global cost of protein for mankind (remember, this is the stated goal of HSUS and its allies!!). 

That’s why it is critical that you make your voices heard to Tyson and the other processing companies that you work with.  

 It’s important that Tyson and other processors keep a flexible approach with producers based on science and input from producers and veterinarians. And it’s critical that the food industry does not engage in this “race to the bottom.”

Given the nature of Tyson’s letter, the resolve of producers to do the right thing and to proactively reach out to Tyson and the processors they work with, and my belief that science and fact will ultimately prevail, I am confident that the Tyson letter will not have long-term negative implications - but only if we act now as an industry to make that  a reality. 

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Iowa  |  January, 16, 2014 at 09:13 AM

I grew up on a family farm. I have been involved in commodity and specialty livestock production and marketing in my professional career, so I have a good view of both sides of the issues. I have family deeply involved in commodity livestock production and meat marketing, so I am very aware of all the issues. When will the livestock sector stop blaming animal rights groups? Yes, they have been the early drivers of some of the issues; but it is now a consumer driven issue. Consumers want to know where their meat comes from and how it is produced. You can repeat all the scientific info you want, but meat purchases are now an emotional decision. I am sure many of us yearn for the "good old days" when nearly everyone knew a farmer and many purchased meat at the local locker. Unfortunately, that is only true now for a very small portion of the population. What drives the success of niche meat marketers? They excel at telling a story. So, let's tell our story too. Don't shy away, publicize it. There are some fantastic starts, some of the new blogs on Pork Network are great at telling their story. Look up The Peterson Farm Brothers on YouTube. They do a fantastic job of telling their story. Nearly all farms are still a family farm, not in the former "picturesque" view, but in the new, modern view. Let's tell that story, it can be successfu!.

Minnesota  |  January, 17, 2014 at 09:11 AM

You are absolutely correct and have stated it so very well--Thank You!

pig vet    
January, 16, 2014 at 09:52 AM

OK Tyson you have started the process so now you get to demonstrate by your actions that you can comply with your own standards. show us the videos of your units whether they are company owned or contract production units and how they all comply with your own set of standards. Also explain how you will oversee the administration of the pain mitigation medication once you have funded the studies and FDA approval costs. Since you brought it up I'm sure you at Tyson have those plans for the pain medication already in hand. Please share that with the rest of the industry. Or is all this in the letter a way to get the activist off your back for now with no intention of making any real changes. Tyson you have the prime opportunity to "put your money where your mouth is". Actions speak louder than words.

kansas  |  January, 16, 2014 at 12:30 PM

Excellent column/review, and thank you for a voice of reason. It is vitally important that producers pay attention and respond to these Public Relations errors. Very large corporations are very self-interested, short-term thinkers and are NOT our "allies" in all things. Long-term, they have the ability to source and thrive via Global markets in foreign countries where groups like HSUS don't exist. Operations in the US no longer viable - for whatever reason, social-cost-etc.? No problem!, because they have Mexico, China, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Belarus, Georgia, Poland, Russia, etc., etc. ready and willing. It is entirely up to producers to hold their feet to the fire and demand support. Tyson doesn't "need" us, we are simply the current environment's most cost-effective, convenient and profitable resource available. Their Marketing, Advertising, Public Relations & Lobbying agents work for Tyson's bottom line, not ours.

Dr. Rannells    
Ohio  |  January, 16, 2014 at 12:36 PM

It's time for industry to make a stand against HSUS and those endorsing their tactics. However Tyson is probably not the spokesperson the industry needs since I doubt there are more than two employees in all of Tyson that have ever castrated piglets or euthanized any animals. So consider the source. Maybe the growers will finally stand up now and bring a small piece of reality to the situation. Industry needs to drive this issue, not be the wreck that will inevitably follow.

DM Pendragon    
Calif  |  January, 17, 2014 at 02:10 PM

This is all driven by H$U$. I agree with the fact that consumers want to know where their meat (other products come from) but part of their preception is driven by H$U$ and other Animal Rights Orgs. The public in general has no idea what good animal husbandry is, and takes their que from H$U$ a vegan org that is not interested in good animal husbandry but the elimination of animal husbandry period. It is not about the welfare of animals for H$U$ but about the money derived from their scam about how they are "saving the animals". See HSUS Solicitation Campaigns a Net Negative for Animals Link below

Nevada  |  January, 18, 2014 at 04:11 AM

This website and it's promotion of gestation crates is ridiculous. If gestation crates are so essential, then how have humans eat pork for thousands of years? These IMPs are very new in terms of how long humans have been eating animals. Yes maybe, some organizations like PETA want the whole world to be vegan. These dramatic people are a small sector. Most of us, myself included, love meat but just want it to be raised humanely. No matter what way you slice it, gestation stalls are not humane. That is not a normal way to raise animals. As far as then fighting in open housing, give them more space for the love of God! If I put you in a bedroom with ten other people and asked none of you to ever get annoyed with each other, do you think you could do it? For your whole life? Step into reality. What you are doing is cruel and wrong. I realize you are making more of a profit and you are weaning more piglets. However, where are your morals? Apparently you locked them in a crate somewhere as well. I love meat and will continue to purchase it as I do now. From ethical farmers who let their cattle graze on grass, not GMO feed. From farmers whose pigs are raised without the use of gestation crates, the way they have been for hundreds of years before greedy agriculture decided to do anything to make a buck, including checking their morals at the door. And farmers whose chickens who are truly free range, not in a warehouse with flueroscent lighting, but dust bathing in the earth and pecking grubs out if the ground. I hope you people who love gestation stalls so much come back as a sow in your next life and live in one, then to a farrowing crate, then artificially inseminated again and back to your crate.

Cathy P.    
Venice, FL  |  January, 20, 2014 at 10:07 AM

Great points. Thank you for a voice of reason. I know the response to this is there aren't enough resources or land and what you have said is elitist. If we all ate less meat this would be possible and we would be healthier. The animals that people insist on eating should be having a much better life before their premature end. It isn't perfect for the purist "vegans" or the soulless "CAFO operators", it is compromise for the good of all mankind and those under his dominion.


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