Animal welfare: status and perception

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In recent years, individuals involved in animal agriculture have become concerned that the public is increasingly questioning the welfare of food animals. Newspapers run stories criticizing the use of sow gestation crates, and legislators introduce bills aimed at controlling what they see as inappropriate farm practices.

In late March, veterinarians, government officials, humane representatives, and agriculture industry stakeholders gathered at a meeting of the Animal Agriculture Alliance in Arlington, Va., to discuss issues surrounding the state of animal welfare and public perception.

"Consumers are moving further away from the farm," said Charlie Arnot, chairman of the Animal Agriculture Alliance and vice president of Premium Standard Farms. "Public understanding of who we are and what we do continues to decline. As that understanding erodes, the gap between consumer knowledge and acceptance of industry practices grows."

For sure, animal welfare at slaughterhouses has improved in recent years. Temple Grandin, PhD, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, says McDonald's Corp. is partly to credit for improvements. In 1999, the company began auditing its meatpacking plants, using the American Meat Institute scoring system that Dr. Grandin developed. This system measures welfare by objectively scoring several critical control points.

"A good critical control point measures a multitude of sin," Dr. Grandin commented. Auditors measure the percentage of animals stunned in the wrong anatomic location; shot more than once with a captive bolt stunner; identified as sensible or partially sensible on the bleed rail; vocalizing in the stunning chute area, stunning pen, or restrainer conveyor; prodded with an electric prod; and seen slipping and falling during the slaughter process.

To be deemed acceptable, a plant must be able to stun at least 95 percent of the animals on the first attempt, move 75 percent without using an electric prod, and have no more than 3 percent of the animals vocalizing.

"In the beginning, the plants were like 'eek, we can't possibly do this,' but then they just turned around and did it," Dr. Grandin said. "When I first started working on this, the worst plant on vocalization had 35 percent of the cattle mooing, because they were being squashed into a chute that was too small for them. The worst plant is now (at) only 6 percent. The average of vocalization for over 50 plants was less than 3 percent, and that is doing really, really good."

Much of that improvement is attributable to slaughterhouses making simple changes—to lighting for example, and increasing training for handlers. Luckily for the plants, those measures are also inexpensive.

Dr. Grandin says audits must be repeated to keep welfare standards up. "If you relax vigilance, things slowly get bad again, and people don't realize it," she said. "The packing plants that have the best handling and stunning do an internal audit with their meat quality people every week."

With animal welfare improving at slaughter plants, animal welfare groups and the public have been focusing more of their attention toward other agricultural practices. Dr. Kellye Pfalzgraf, director of the Office of Animal Well-being at Tyson Foods Inc., says customers are querying his company about whether they have written humane guidelines for their producers and how they measure producer compliance with them.

Consumers want food prepared in their style of choosing, in their portion of preference, at a reasonable cost, and produced in a socially responsible manner, Arnot said. The problem is that the definition of what is right, in many instances, is still very much up for debate.

Attendees agreed that developing science-based guidelines is key, not only for improving animal welfare, but also for protecting the image of animal agriculture. Jeff Armstrong, PhD, dean of Michigan State University's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources said, "You are going to have a much stronger public relations campaign if you have a strong (foundation) of science, because eventually, someone in a state house or the U.S. House is going to ask an expert to come up and testify, and they are going to say, 'tell us about molting, tell us about gestation crates.'" Dr. Armstrong urged stakeholders not to confuse being proactive with caving into activists. Changes made in the care of laying hens are proof that reviewing practices can be productive, he commented.

In 1999, the United Egg Producers and American Egg Board put together an independent committee of academics, scientists, and other experts to review all scientific research on the treatment of egg-laying hens and design guidelines, putting animal welfare first and foremost. The new guidelines included changes, such as increasing the recommended square inches per bird from 48-60 to 67-86.

"You need to look at your sector of animal agriculture and ask the hard questions," Dr. Armstrong said. "You have got to avoid (worrying about) the slippery slope phenomenon that 'If we move at all on this issue, then they are going to take us right on down the slippery slope.' If the egg producers had felt that way, they would not have put together a committee. You have to be proactive."

Dr. Armstrong said part of the problem is a shortage of animal welfare experts. "We don't have many people working in animal welfare at universities or at the USDA-ARS," he said. "We need a greater emphasis. USDA-ARS has fewer than two people working strictly in animal behavior." Michigan State University has only one scientist working strictly in animal welfare.

Ray Stricklin, PhD, a professor of animal science at the University of Maryland, also sees a need for more animal behaviorists. He believes the current state of applied animal behavior research is weaker today than it was 30 years ago.

Dr. Stricklin says that those involved in agriculture need to build a moral argument justifying animal agriculture. Articles arguing that eating meat is unethical abound in philosophy journals, but what about the other side?

"There is not any literature on the moral basis of using animals for food," Dr. Stricklin said. "We can't only deal with science. I think we need to deal with ethics in our discussion."

Several speakers at the AAA meeting stated that, if animal agriculture stakeholders want to improve their image, the discussion has to involve all individuals in the food chain, from farmers to veterinarians, and processors to grocers to retailers. Only in that way will agriculture stakeholders be able to get their message across. And while many in the animal agriculture community agree that message needs to be voiced more loudly, it is clear that the message is reaching some of the public.

A survey conducted by Market Directions Inc. and jointly underwritten by the Animal Agriculture Alliance and the National Corn Growers Association found that 81 percent of 1,000 individuals polled believe farmers are concerned about the well-being of their animals. In that survey population, only 27 percent said they had lived or worked on a farm for a month or longer.

"Our polls show that the public has consistently, over the years, trusted and valued American farmers and ranchers and the important job they do so well," said AAA President Bruce Andrews.