In the 1976 movie “Network,” a frustrated former news anchor named Howard Beale told a TV audience “I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!” Do you ever feel like that? Lately I have often felt the urge to take Beale’s advice. In the past few months my own level of frustration has grown as the pork industry has experienced several instances where outside forces are attempting to change on-farm practices. Those forces include not only animal rights organizations but also restaurant chains, grocery retailers, regulatory agencies, and even our own profession.
Three decades ago it would never have occurred to me that those with so little knowledge about the production of pork would be trying to dictate how things are done on the farm. Sow housing, piglet processing, and antibiotic use are among the issues being discussed. What is so frustrating is the knowledge gap that exists between the farm and the boardrooms where the discussions are being held.
Recently we have seen restaurant chains and grocery retailers dictating the prohibition of gestation stalls. Related to this prohibition are the continued releases of undercover videos by animal rights organizations. Increasingly these videos are used to condemn accepted production practices used every day on farms.
A colleague once quipped that he wished fast-food restaurants would concentrate on teaching employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom and leave pork production to the experts. Unfortunately this is not the case today, as these restaurants and retailers prefer what is expeditious rather than what is right for the animal. They prefer to depend on claiming that the “public” is represented by animal-rights organizations. They are so risk-adverse to the loss of even one sale of a hamburger that they are willing to throw an entire industry under the proverbial bus. So we are left with a changing marketplace that is more prohibitionist than scientist. We are also left to continue to raise pigs in the best manner we can muster.
There are other outside forces at play. The US Food and Drug Administration has initiated the process of eliminating some uses of antibiotics in food animals. We have already lost the extra-label use of cephalosporins. It seems fairly certain that most if not all production uses of antibiotics will be lost. There may even be challenges to prevention and control uses of antibiotics. Once again, the prohibitionist approach will result in challenges to animal health and welfare that are not well understood by those making the regulatory decisions.
Within our own profession, we have seen the AVMA agree with a leading animal-rights organization and support federal legislation that mandates production standards on the farm. Although this was in regard to caged laying hens, it is still shocking that a veterinary organization would agree that animal agriculture needs more federal laws that directly impact on-farm practices. This legislation not only prohibits but also dictates in a manner that will not allow incremental improvements as the science improves.
This series of developments has left me wondering what farmers and veterinarians can do. What actions can we take to ensure the best for the animals under our care?
One of the first things to do is to recognize what is under our control and influence. Once we have that recognition, then we can decide on how to best affect that which is within our realm of control. We can also seek to better understand that which is beyond our reach and what can be done to mitigate those influences.
We can continue to advocate for the pig. Do not allow animal-rights activists to represent themselves as the only people who care about animals. Tell the true story of animal agriculture. Whether it is with one consumer at a time or a roomful, veterinarians have a compelling story to tell about how animals are cared for on the farm. Education is a strong tool that only works when someone is willing to share knowledge.
That same story can be told to legislators. One of the bedrock principles of a democracy is the access of citizens to their elected representatives. Call, e-mail, and visit your members of congress. Tell legislators not to impose unneeded, onerous, and inflexible laws on the farm.
Express your displeasure with restaurants and retailers who would rather prohibit production practices than promote the wellbeing of the pig. Don’t spend your money at these establishments. Urge everyone you know to do the same. Be sure to tell the companies why you are boycotting. Let them know that you are a consumer that disapproves of their strong-arm tactics. Do not allow the fantasy that animalrights activists represent the “public.”
When necessary, we can educate ourselves and our clients on the best ways to meet the changes demanded by the marketplace. Whether it is sow housing or antibiotic use, there are things that can be done to mitigate the challenges that will present themselves. We can also support research to better understand what can be done on the farm to improve animal health and welfare.
We cannot tolerate abuse of animals. It would be great to educate and train everyone with animal contact so that abuse will not occur. However, when dealing with people it is difficult to have a 100% success rate. We must prevent abuse where and when possible, and also be prepared to stop abuse immediately if it occurs.
Regardless of what happens in the marketplace or through legislation and regulations, the relationship between veterinarians, farmers, and pigs will persist. In fact, I predict that this relationship will strengthen, which in turn will be good for the pig. I am confident that we can continue to focus on what is best for the pig, but it will not be without frustrations.
Now, where is that window?
--Tom Burkgren, DVM