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NOTE: Dan Murphy, editor of Meat Marketing & Technology (MMT) Magazine, will be speaking at AR2002 during the Sunday evening plenary session. An outline of his presentation follows this article.

COMMENTARY: Why industry must embrace reform agenda on animal welfare
by Dan Murphy
6/28/02
www.meatingplace.com

On the eve of the 2002 Animal Rights 2002 Conference set to start tomorrow in Washington , D.C. , meatpackers and processors must once again brace themselves for renewed "attention" on the issue of humane handling and appropriate treatment of livestock and food animals.

That's because there are few things activists do more proficiently then point a righteous finger of blame -- especially at big, bad Corporate Amerika.

With more than 120 speakers from more than 40 different groups making presentations, conducting workshops, running meetings and orchestrating rap sessions that are spread across the entire weekend, you can bet that this animal rights and veggie activist gathering will garner its share of mainstream media coverage.

I'll have my own report on that conference next week, right here on the Meatingplace.com, so we won't get into the impact of their little festival right now.

However, the timing of the Animals Rights Conference is not insignificant, because yesterday a companion initiative much more visible on the meat industry's radar screen was released jointly by the Food Marketing Institute and the National Council of Chain Restaurants. The report, entitled, "FMI-NCCR Animal Welfare Program," outlines the framework within which all livestock production facilities and meatpacking plants are supposed to operate.

That seems pretty straightforward to me, but based on the secrecy with which this report is being shrouded, its actual title might as well have been "The Inside Story of WorldCom's $4 Billion Accounting Screw-up." Benign as the details of the document proved to be once it was made public, FMI officials, perhaps still stiff from the shellacking they recently endured on national television over the meat package re-dating scandal, refused to comment further on its contents or its potential impact on producer industries. Compared with their tight-lipped silence, the stony-faced Russian> generals planning nuclear Armageddon in the current hit flick "The Sum of All Fears" looked like an inbred family getting paid by the epithet on "The Jerry Springer Show."

Which makes no sense. FMI's reaction, that is, not Jerry's "guests."

I realize that calling attention to animal welfare issues implies there's a problem needing to be fixed, but even if the report concluded that conditions are horrible on the nation's farms and in its meatpacking plants and that wholesale reform needs to start like, yesterday, it would be producers and packers on the hot seat -- not retail grocers or chain restaurant operators.

So what does the report actually conclude? Basically, that conditions for most food animals are generally acceptable, although more could be done to ensure their comfort, safety and well-being. That won't be the conclusion> animal rights groups and vegan crusaders come to, I assure you, but after reading the report myself and speaking with six of the seven members of the FMI-NCCR committee of expert advisers, it is evident that there are really only two significant "problem" areas in animal agriculture: egg production and pork production. And in both cases, it's more a matter of addressing specific practices, rather than re-vamping the entire process.

Neither industry would be too happy about having the issue stated that bluntly, but let's examine each area briefly.

In the egg industry, there is an emerging consensus among poultry scientists, activists and a growing percentage of consumers that forced molting by way of feed withdrawal needs to be phased out. Nobody denies that such a regimen results in hens laying larger, stronger-shelled eggs, but the obvious impact of a s starvation "diet" is far from humane.

Research funded by the trade group United Egg Producers is underway at several universities, with the goal of figuring out a way to achieve a similar "action-reaction" pattern without having to withhold feed.

Similarly, industry experts are seeking ways to obviate the need to trim hens' beaks as a deterrent to the often violent pecking that occurs in the close quarters of an egg house. Again, this is something that will have to be eliminated -- not "managed."

The FMI-NCCR guidelines call for "beak trimming only when necessary and only when carried out by trained personnel monitored regularly for quality control."

That's about as do-able as the assurances from the Federal Aviation Administration that "passenger safety will be assured by maintaining rigorous training of all airport security personnel at key checkpoints."

Let's hope some poultry scientist somewhere figures out how to breed beakless chickens sometime soon, because that's the only way to solve the beak-trimming problem.

The other criterion at issue for both egg and pork producers involves space: How much and in what configuration is acceptable enough to be labeled "humane." For egg producers, a phased-in timetable is already in place to gradually increase per-bird space to anywhere from 67 to 76 square inches depending on the size of the breed.

There will always be pressure on egg producers (few of whom are getting rich doing difficult, demanding work, I should point out) to provide more space, more freedom, more ventilation -- more of everything. But if producers stick to these guidelines, eventually only the most rabid, fanatical critics of the industry will keep squawking.

In pork, the space issue arises in breeding facilities. Sows are actually more comfortable in a relatively confined space during gestation and nursing. I said "relatively." As the guidelines suggest, that doesn't mean they should be squashed up against the bars of their stalls, nor be unable to stand up and turn around.

Of course, industry critics love to paint the entire concept of confinement itself as cruel and unusual punishment, conveniently forgetting that> even so-called "pasture pigs" who are raised outdoors are provided snug little huts in which the sows spend most of their time prior to delivering their> litters. To the more radical activists, keeping an animal in confinement period is universally characterized as inhumane.

In fact, I have to give the activist community credit for an extremely clever strategic initiative: They have managed to position the debate over animal welfare in the context of how the average household pet is typically treated. When the debate over what's appropriate for animals is framed in terms of the "lifestyle" enjoyed by Fluffy and Fido, meat or egg> producers start looking like Nazis by comparison.

The real comparison, however, is between the living conditions of a farm animal and those of a wild animal. If activists really want animals to enjoy a "natural" lifestyle, they need to accept that in any herd or flock, thousands will die a cruel, painful death from starvation, disease or predators every single year.

Probably the most graphic example of such a scenario occurred in the>

1970s and 1980s, with the wild horses in Oregon , Nevada and a couple other Western states. Few images are more romantic than a herd of horses "running free," whether it's on a cheap drug-store poster or whether it consumes a couple hours of soft-focus footage in some Robert Redford-directed homage to a lifestyle that increasingly only people in his tax bracket can afford to enjoy.

Problem is, the wild herds soon began multiplying out of control, since they were federally protected and had no significant predators to thin out their numbers.

No problem. Nature took care of the overpopulation in short order, with dozens of skeletal horses literally collapsing from starvation and many more dying from diseases, while the rest of the herd did serious damage to streambeds and riparian areas during their relentless migration in search of forage. Eventually, rangers from the Bureau of Land Management had to use helicopters and Jeeps to drive the horses into makeshift stalls, where they were "tamed" and auctioned off to private citizens wanting to adopt them.

I don't think I need to remind anyone who followed the whole debacle that a significant percentage of the people who took possession of the horses ended up selling them (some to slaughterers), giving them away or simply keeping them corralled until they died, unable to adapt to captivity.

But I digress. The point is that in contrast to wild animals, livestock are kept warm, dry, well-fed, properly medicated and protected throughout their lives. Are they better off than animals who must hunt and forage and fight for survival? I don't have the answer, but I know that's the question.

Finally, there is one more compelling reason why every company and trade group in the meat and animal foods business needs to take seriously the issues raised in the FMI-NCCR report. Ultimately, the goal of this project is to develop standardized guidelines for humane handling and welfare across all of animal production. That's a monumental task, but it's crucial in that the alternative would be a whole series of specialized protocols and policies, each developed by a grocery chain or fast food company> specifically for their own packer-producer/suppliers. That would be a nightmare that would cause far more problems than it solved.

Eventually, a private organization will probably need be created under government auspices to contract the on-site auditing and compliance that will be the heart of the final guidelines envisioned by the FMI-NCCR committee.

But until that day arrives, the message every organization in this industry needs to trumpet is clear: We care about our animals. We've made real progress on humane handling issues, but we're not going to stop improving conditions wherever it can be supported by solid scientific research.

Because s tar ting this weekend, a whole chorus of critics is warming up to drown out whatever spin industry might be tempted use to avoid dealing with the animal welfare challenges it must overcome.

Outline of Dan Murphy's presentation to Animal Rights Conference 2002:  June 30, 2002 :

Brief historical review of meat eating and livestock production.

Brief review and analysis of changes in industry operations and structure, including:

* Consolidation, as bigger packers acquire smaller companies

* Food safety, as new antimicrobial technologies come online

* Newfound attention to foodservice, retail customer concerns

Top three areas where packers must improve:

*Animal handling and animal welfare, including specific issues in the areas of confinement housing, transportation, feedlot and packing plant receiving, handling and stunning.

*Food safety, especially in dealing with microbial contamination in live animals and fresh meat products.

*Labor issues, especially in terms of working conditions, worker safety, and race- and ethnic-related concerns

How the animal rights, animal activist movement can help fast-forward the above agenda.

Presented by: Dan Murphy, Editor, MMT Magazine, 1415 N. Dayton St. Chicago  IL 60622 , (312)274-2213, dan@meatingplace.com