Background last update:Feb 25, 2016

Animal welfare in the bottom drawer

The first day of World Pork Expo, in Des Moines, IA, United States is traditionally a day full of press conferences, and I’ve worked my way through export figures, trade agreements, PEDv updates – and some remarkable words on the image of the US pork industry.

The words I refer to were a joint presentation by Dallas Hockman, vice president of industry relations, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and Jarrod Sutton, assistant vice president of channel marketing for the National Pork Board (NPB).

They explained to members of the press how they have been working pro-actively over the last 18 months to get in touch with all leading food companies. They invited them to come and see the pork industry, get to know its way of working, explained why things are done the way they are done – and that pork producers care and do what is right.

Bad publicity
The initiative of both organisations follows the recent ongoing activities of animal welfarist groups, predominantly Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which are known for e.g. (illegally) entering farms with the purpose of making footage, used for naming and shaming the industry. As a result of bad publicity, large food companies like McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King etc., in 2012 decided to move away from use of gestation crates in their food production process.

Hockman and Sutton explained that part of the damage caused by welfarist actions might be prevented by proactively approaching the same food producing industry – often in large cities, far away from agricultural reality. What is needed is that they need to be told and explained the story from the farmer's side, to tell the other side of the equation. There is a reason why things the way they are – and that taking away current practices can have far-reaching negative consequences.

Hockman had a couple of one-liners to illustrate his point of view, one being, "For a long time we have been raising pigs, now it is also time to raise our voice."

Supporting choice
The plea is deeply rooted in the American belief of 'supporting choice'. It is fine, Hockman and Sutton said, if niche markets grow for people choosing organically produced meat, and it is also fine if there are people willing to grow the pigs that way. As long as there is no dictate telling farmers how to produce their meat.

My thoughts went out to Europe's pig farmers who never had that choice – and for many the mandatory conversion to group housing as part of 2013 EU legislation was not welcomed too. At the same time, however, the new rules drove a host of new innovations and as a result new housing systems came onto the market, yes – errors were made but also solved, a whole generation of pig farmers now knows how to work with sows held in groups.

I have seen many a facility in which group housing was successful with performance figures exceeding 30 piglets per sow per year easily. Systems like group housing with Electronic Sow Feeding provide detailed opportunities for exact and automated phase feeding programmes, producers learned how to overcome the hierarchy fighting and as a bonus, sows can stretch their legs as well.

That bonus – as intended by the legislation – is a matter of animal welfare. The legislation therefore created some creativity and forced the industry to think of more welfare-oriented solutions. It forced the industry to look into the mirror, it forced the industry to ask itself: Why did we do the things we did – and now it is time to re-think, how can we do it better?

Now let us turn back to the US situation. Animal welfarist groups aimed to villify the food producers and aimed to bring about change. Interestingly, the US pork industry reacts by proactively informing the food producers that whatever they do is good.

I admire that message and I think everyone around the world in the pig business can use this example of this professional attitude of openness and information. Hockman and Sutton emphasised the industry's own responsibility to work transparently and with integrity, which also deserves a round of applause.

What they chose not to do, however, is answer the question why farms are being targeted by animal welfare activists. They so to say overlooked the opportunity to look into that mirror.

When listening to their story I honestly could not grasp why.

Then, later that day, one exhibitor told me marketing products on the US pig market as 'being better for animal welfare' currently is a definite no-no. She pointed to a complete general antipathy to the theme as a result of the activist undercover videos.

Seems like the US activists have bitten their own tail. Their actions have evoked a more self-conscious industry – and for many professionals, animal welfare has become bottom drawer priority.

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