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'Boar pit' at Banff Pork Seminar tackles farm animal care

Blunt discussion cuts to heart of the issue for North American pork industry

Posted: January 25, 2013

Boar Pit Session Chair, Shannon Meyers of Fast Genetics.

From the W5 fallout to the activist challenge and Pig Code progress, frank talk focused on farm animal care was in the spotlight during a 'boar pit' session at the Banff Pork Seminar.

The no-holds barred boar pit discussion was designed as interactive format, anchored by a panel of industry leaders speaking out on the big issues of the day, with questions and dialogue from an audience of over 200 producers, company reps and other pork industry players.

The panel included Al Mussell of the George Morris Centre, Crystal Mackay of Food & Farm Care and long-time pork producer and industry leader Florian Possberg, along with moderator Shannon Meyers of Fast Genetics.

Here are a few highlights of the discussion:

Are we leading or following on livestock welfare?

For Mackay, the answer is a bit of both. "Canada was the first country to develop Codes of Practice, in the late 80s and the early 90s. The concept of establishing best management practices in a cooperative manner nationally was really leading the issue. But unfortunately 1991, when the first Pig Code was done, is a long time ago."

As Banff Pork Seminar participants heard in earlier plenary sessions, activist groups such as Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have become a major driver of the agenda. "These groups are single issue machines that are very well funded," says Mackay. "HSUS has really pushed the envelope well beyond where producers were ready to go."

The pork industry, with its participation in the development of new Pig Code slated for completion later this year, has been doing the right thing for the right reasons," she says. "We've got a good continuous improvement model. But other groups with different agendas than actually improving animal welfare have been leading the debate publically. We've been pretty quiet. Too invisible. We need to change that."

Is the pork industry tackling this issue strongly enough?

Possberg has a solid position to assess the industry response. He serves as chair of the Pig Code development committee.

"We have a different approach than our American friends," says Possberg. "I think it's a very defensible approach that the public will find acceptable. Codes of Practice lay out what our acceptable practices are for the raising of animals in a way consistent with good welfare. But very importantly, I believe they also provide us with a tool that can help protect our producers and our industry from frivolous opposition."

Long-time producer and industry leader, Florian Possberg

Like many, Florian believes a large part of the push in animal welfare is driven not by consumers or the general public, but by activist groups who put pressure on food companies and politicians. "Politics is a funny animal. Sometimes radical people get to key individuals in very high places within government and they pass laws. In the case of the U.K., they banned the gestation stall. That spread to the rest of Europe. I'm not sure there was a lot of debate or a lot of input from producers in that situation to define acceptable practices."

It's much better for the pork industry to take charge and define its approaches first, he says. "That's why I really think the Pig Code protects us as producers. There will be onus on producers. But if we can follow those requirements, I think consumers will find that acceptable and it will keep radical groups and politicians from taking over."

What do we learn from W5?

For many people in the Canadian pork industry and more broadly in agriculture, a big focus of discussion in recent weeks is the W5 investigative news story on what the program described as "disturbing and inhumane" treatment of farm animals. Fueled by undercover video from Mercy for Animals, the program sparked a wave of industry criticism.

"There has been much debate on it and much response on it," says Meyers. "From a pork industry perspective, when I have talked to people, what I often hear is people that some things shown in the program definitely shouldn't have occurred and are unacceptable, while others are industry practices that we would call fairly normal"

The industry needs to continue to speak out strongly against any unacceptable behavior, he says. At the same time, 'normal' industry practices that, even while endorsed by veterinarians and otherwise determined as acceptable - such as blunt force trauma for euthanasia - should also be looked at from the perspective of the optics they have for the general consumer. "Not to say we need to change those, but we should have the discussion."

Should we expect to get paid for good welfare?

All panelists spoke to this. They agreed that good welfare often supports positive economics. However, that is not the only or even the main reason for animal care leadership. Sound, science-based welfare innovations are good for the animal, often good for productivity and efficiency, and they enhance the "brand" of the industry in the public eye.

Al Mussel George Morris Centre, left, and Crystal Mackay of Food & Farm Care

"Another way to look at this, I regard animal welfare standards as a measure that you take to safeguard the integrity of the product category," says Mussell. "I would say the same thing for sustainability measures. They often come at a cost, but there can be economic benefits to them. And the most important thing is having solid, defensible approaches in place so that you take charge of your future. If you allow a group with a different agenda to dictate the terms, you're not likely being very smart about it."

The desire for an immediate strong economic payback is not realistic and not what should drive the industry response, he says. "One of the mistakes we've made I think in the past, and hopefully not in the future, is sometimes we have a feeling that for every individual measure we take, we expect we're going to get paid for that. We want something we can hold up that a consumer immediately cares about enough to pay for. But when we're talking about safeguarding our industry it's a longer term payback. It's not often immediate or direct, but it's still very valuable. It's about taking your own initiative to protect the category and support a strong future.

More BPS highlights

More highlights of the Banff Pork Seminar are available in this Special Report, including these feature articles related to livestock welfare:

Full court press on the activist agenda. "Game on." That's the attitude Washington D.C.-based public affairs expert Rick Berman has when he looks at the challenge animal activist groups pose for livestock industries. It's a mindset he says the pork industry, and others in animal agriculture, would do well to adopt.

Activist messages under the microscope. One critical way to manage the activist threat is by better understanding the dynamics involved in the core messages, says Wes Jamison, a leading researcher and thinker on interest group activism, based at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.




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