Animal welfare and improving, monitoring and evaluating it are a high priority for the American Meat Institute and its members. But animal welfare, specifically for cattle and swine, is a complex subject not without its own controversies.

At the 2012 AMI Animal Care & Handling Conference this week in Kansas City, Mo., veterinary experts discussed the interface between animal welfare and consumers.

Gail Golab, PhD, DVM, Dipl. ACAW, director of Animal Welfare for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said there are three areas of controversy:

1. Different people evaluate animal welfare differently. “One group thinks about what is going on with the body such as health, reproduction and growth,” she explains. “A second group focuses on the mind and how animals feel, and their pain, suffering, contentment and pleasure.” The third equates welfare with natural and how close does the animal find itself to if it was “free-living” in nature. Golab says we are looking at intersection of these three.

“The reality is that we stray from the center where these three intersect, and we get disconnects,” Golab says. “Physical” people are not as interested in the “natural” or “feelings” aspects of the others. “People gravitate to what has more return on investment for them.”

2. Controversy arises when we don’t proactively recognize and address public concerns. Three main concerns, says Golab, are animals in boxes or restraint, things “cut off” or modified without pain control, and injury/death of animals. “Consumers care about what, why, when and how,” she says.

3. When consumer expectations don’t match reality or perceptions of industry performance. “Animal welfare has two components,” Golab says. “’What is’ which is what we are actually assessing, and ‘what ought to be’, which is social perspective and ethical concerns.”

Golab says what determines social ethic is culture, traditions, science and economics. “People decide what they can and can’t live with.”

Unintended consequences
National Pork Producers Council Chief Veterinarian Liz Wagstrom, DVM, says in the pork industry there is a lot of emphasis on sow housing and gestation housing, but that there is an increasing awareness of animal welfare efforts that the industry has made in the areas of pain management at castration/tail docking, transportation issues and euthanasia.

In the area of sow housing and gestation, it’s easy to find numerous legislative activities dating from 2002 and retailers/food service putting demands in place for a change in production practices.

While these may be the hot topics of the moment, Wagstrom says hastily putting demands in place has and can result in unintended negative consequences up and down the pork production chain. These include:

  • Announcements made about company demands on producers without verification of supply.
  • Requires segregation in processing and at packing plants, increasing costs.
  • Increases carbon footprint of the industry.
  • Will likely force some smaller farmers out of business and may disproportionately affect smaller farmers w/out capital to remodel.

Wagstrom says the pork industry is working to identify gaps in programs by conducting consumer research, having dedicated teams working with the industry to address questions, focusing with farmers on animal care and training, exploring ways to improve pork production to help farmers, and transparently communicating to consumers about how pigs are raised. “We need to keep the conversation going.”

Manage the conversation
Though milking dairy cows are usually left out of the “meat” discussion until the dairy cow becomes a beef cow, they still are an important factor as dairy animals make up over 20% of the beef industry.

Jennifer Walker, PhD, DVM, Director of Dairy Stewardship for Dean Foods, says, “Beyond the dairy supply chain, one of the biggest challenges and controversies is trying to understand and balance the frustration between consumer perception of what animal welfare is and is not.  

“We have to manage the conversation and make people understand how we focus on welfare,” Walker says. “On the dairy side, we have to focus and understand the overall long-term picture of welfare for 5-10 years of the animal’s lifetime. The problem for us is that people focus on ‘snapshots in time’ instead of the lifetime of the animal.”

Walker says the industry has to have an honest conversation of where it wants to be. “We need to manage the message and manage the conversation, not just being transparent, but being honest.”

She notes that safety and affordability of food is more top-of-mind for consumers in focus groups, but that when the subject of animal welfare comes up, it can make consumers uncomfortable. “Most people take for granted we take care of our cows. We don’t want consumer to go into a market and have to think about animal welfare.”