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.