Consumers in the market for meat with a story

Published on June 15, 2006
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Pets or meat? Pets and meat?

Reduced to simple terms, those alternatives sum up the ethical choice many people feel compelled to make about the morality of using animals as a source of food and fiber.

Aggressive anti-agriculture campaigns have created conflict within some U.S. consumers, most of whom are generations removed from any agricultural roots and context.

A visual presented by a speaker at the Animal Agriculture Alliance Stakeholders Summit showed a sign along a rural road inviting passers-by to purchase a rabbit—for a pet or a meal.

As the future of animal agriculture and the public's choice to consume animal protein hang in the balance, the annual summit provides managers of companies across the food chain with resources to address animal welfare and other issues. Some 160 food industry and animal agriculture executives came to the fifth summit, March 20-22 in Arlington, Va.. It was devoted to "animal welfare, antibiotics, and activism."

The alliance serves as a clearinghouse for science-based information and public education on important agricultural issues.

Greater attention is being directed by the animal agriculture industry toward awareness and accommodation of consumer wants. Many consumers, for example, now shop for meat that has a story, according to Dennis H. Treacy, vice president of public affairs for Smithfield Foods. In Japan, a pork chop is packaged with a picture of the farmer and wife who raised the pig, a description of how it was raised and treated, and a statement about whether antimicrobials were administered.

The future promises more organic and natural products on shelves of mainstream grocery stores, Treacy predicted, not just chains such as Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

Treacy and several other speakers underscored the importance of continuing to use a scientific approach toward animal welfare but being aware of customers and realizing that, as he said, "there's a whole other world out there who may or may not agree."

Perhaps surprising to some, Treacy added, "Don't assume you can educate them."

Carolyn Orr, PhD, chief agriculture and rural policy analyst for the Council of State Governments, said, "Maybe consumers can't be educated, but policymakers can be. Get them to embrace the term 'animal welfare.'" State legislators are unaware that the industry is under fire, she said. They don't have the staff that members of Congress have to advise them.

Dr. Orr described major state animal welfare legislative and regulatory initiatives, and two other speakers followed with federal and international initiatives.

"At the federal level, we're facing the exact same things," said John J. Goldberg, PhD, a member of the professional staff of the House Committee on Agriculture. "My underlying message is we very seldom hear from you folks and how it would affect you. ... When one of you is under attack, you've got to think of all of you as under attack."

Dr. Andrea Gavinelli, head of the Sector-Animal Welfare and Identification Unit of the European Commission, said, "There is a growing trend in the world toward improving animal welfare standards, and (the movement is) led by consumers in this direction."

A third of leading global retailers with turnovers of $25 billion to $250 billion have animal welfare policies, Dr. Gavinelli said. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) is working toward international consensus, including supporting further research on links between animal health and animal welfare. The OIE is currently developing new standards for urban animal control and laboratory animals.

Stakeholders defined  

Who are the industry's stakeholders? Charlie Arnot, president of CMA Consulting LLC, described a continuum in which groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are at the left, producers are at the right, and customers, consumers, and voters—the stakeholders—are in the middle.

"This is the group that wants permission to believe. They don't want reams of data and science. What they want to know is, are you doing the right thing, and do you care?" Arnot said.

"Pets or meat" is what many are struggling with, he reiterated. "We're trying to answer an ethical question with scientific information."

Arnot said the goal is to close the gap between industry performance and stakeholder expectations, and that gap probably isn't as broad as imagined. One study showed a disparity between people who think farm animals should be treated humanely and those who think they should be treated as pets.

When asked how one works with groups that want to eliminate the producers' existence, Arnot replied that he believes you can't—he views them as antagonists, not stakeholders. He said industry must embrace its moral obligation, put measurement systems in place, and aggressively communicate what it is doing.

Animal agriculture has not begun to answer the moral question of why not animal rights, according to Wes Jamison, PhD, director of the Agricultural Stewardship Center at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. "The question of the future is, why is what you do morally right?"

Jamison said industry must assert that what it is doing is morally right; it is counterproductive to only keep giving reasons.

Society has increasingly come to see animal welfare as a moral issue, not a scientific or economic issue, Jamison said. Animal rights and animal welfare have absolutely nothing to do with animals, he added, in an assertion that was echoed by others at the summit.

Relative to animal rights, Jamison said that giving rights is a normal process, and every expansion of rights in this country has faced opposition that was almost violent.

Addressing animal welfare research, Stanley Curtis, PhD, criticized research that overemphasizes behavioral and physiologic indicators. Dr. Curtis, a professor emeritus at the Department of Animal Sciences, University of Illinois, suggested making a paradigm shift. His view, not universally held, supports a performance axiom in which the best single set of "measurable" indicators of that animal's state of being will be its rates of productive and reproductive performances relative to its predicted potential to perform.

"What's good for the animal is also good for the company coffers," he said.

Dr. Curtis called for more input from scientists on design and testing before animal welfare research is conducted, and more funding for such research.

Antimicrobial use  

This year's summit expanded beyond animal welfare to the issue of antimicrobial use.

Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the FDA has been struggling with antimicrobial resistance since he came to the department 12 years ago. The approach it uses is qualitative risk assessment, which involves release, exposure, and consequence assessments. This system doesn't require extensive data that are not available, and sometimes enables use of a product in individual animals, even if not in a whole herd or flock. Dr. Sundlof gave florfenicol as an example of risk management that permitted the marketing of this antimicrobial as a Veterinary Feed Directive drug for use in catfish. He mentioned that the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System is currently being appraised by the FDA Science Board Peer Review.

"We've really gotten past the dark days when there was lots of uncertainty and confusion," Dr. Sundlof said.

A growing consumer sector want to know whether antimicrobials are used in the food animals they purchase. Dennis Treacy related how Murphy-Brown, Smithfield's livestock production subsidiary, adopted an antibiotics statement because of questions from consumers, advocacy groups, the press, and the academic community. Murphy-Brown is the world's largest producer of pork and one of the nation's leading turkey producers.  

Threat management  

The second day of the summit focused on threat management and communication and underscored the benefits of cross-industry communication in correcting misperceptions presented in anti-agriculture campaigns.

Topics included a presentation by an FBI agent on the threat posed by animal rights activists and terrorists, as well as other presentations on implementing counterterrorism measures, crisis communications, dealing with activists, and educating consumers about animal welfare.