This paper was presented at the 22nd Western Nutrition Conference 2001 September 25-27 Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
What Role Will the Consumer Play in Meat, Milk and Egg Production in Western Canada
Joseph M. Stookey 1
1 Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences , University of Saskatchewan,
Saskatoon, SK, S7N 5B4
Consumers are certain to have input and influence on a number of issues
that confront the livestock and poultry industries. This paper focuses
on consumer concerns and their influence on animal welfare issues. Ignoring
consumer concerns can reduce the overall sustainability of a particular
system or practice. Issues of concern to consumers include: routine management
procedures that inflict pain onto livestock, management systems that confine
and restrict movement of our poultry and animals, and environments in
which animals can not satisfy a number of behavioural needs or where they
display behaviours indicative of suffering. Many routine painful procedures
could include methods for mitigating pain. Some procedures could be avoided
altogether through genetic selection, such as selecting for polled animals
to eliminate need for dehorning or by selecting strains that show reduced
tendencies to feather peck or tail bite thereby eliminating need to beak
trim chickens or tail dock swine. The formation of neuromas following
amputation of tails and after beak trimming suggest that we may be inadvertently
subjecting some of our production animals to chronic pain. Some standards
that set absolute limits on what is and is not allowed may be needed to
prevent industries from becoming desensitized to accepting practices and
systems that compromise animal welfare for economic gains. Fast food chains
(very large consumers) are certain to have an influence on livestock systems
and practices used by suppliers and some features are certain to disappear
(i.e. forced moulting, gestation stalls, overcrowding in cages) because
of increasing public pressure. The best options for addressing welfare
issues are to 1) develop a proactive approach aimed at educating producers
on animal welfare issues 2) set uncompromising standards 3) support research
aimed at developing economically viable welfare friendly alternatives
4) develop incentives for welfare friendly operations and 5) work with
consumer groups and label products.
There are a variety of issues and concerns voiced by consumers (or non farmers) that relate to livestock production. The topics range from GMOs, food safety and antibiotic resistance to concerns about pollution, sustainability and animal welfare. Each topic in itself is worthy of discussion and in each of these areas society is certain to have some input and exert some influence on how agriculture and animal production will advance. This paper focuses on consumer concerns and their influence on animal welfare issues.
Consumers always right!
Currently, if a rural municipality is hesitant to approve the construction of a new intensive livestock or poultry operation based on environmental fears, then as producers we scramble to assure the neighbors that odor control and ground water pollution will be handled using state of the art technologies with the highest level of manure management possible to protect the environment. And when it comes to the final consumable product, most livestock producers would readily agree that the consumer should have the ultimate say. We rely on surveys to learn about consumer tastes and preferences and industries usually strive to satisfy consumer cravings. If consumers indicate they may consume more of a product if it came in more convenient packages, or if it was a microwaveable product, or if it had smaller or fewer servings per package, if it was more juicy, tender, etc. we immediately develop new products to meet the findings from the survey. In addition, consumers are given the highest level of assurance in regards to food quality and food safety. We have been told time and time again that the consumer is the key to the whole equation and that ultimately the consumer is right. Therefore, it seems somewhat ironic that while most people in the industry would scramble to satisfy the consumer's nose and palate, there are many within the industry who would dismiss consumer concerns in regards to animal welfare, citing as an excuse that welfare concerns originate from an "uniformed public".
Consumer concerns about animal welfare issues
I do not believe we can have it both ways. We can not expect to have consumers that are welcome to express sentiments about a product's taste and wrong to question a product's production. Consumers should be able to voice concerns about animal welfare issues and know that those concerns would be addressed and taken seriously. Consumers are concerned about routine management procedures that inflict pain onto livestock. Consumers are concerned about management systems that confine and restrict movement of our poultry and animals. Consumers are concerned about systems that place animals in environments in which they can not satisfy a number of behavioural needs and where animals display behaviours indicative of suffering. More and more people, especially younger generations, somewhere around 2% (Toppo, 2001), are choosing a vegetarian diet. Whatever their reasons, their choice should not be the result of the industry's welfare record, environmental record, food safety record, or any item under our control.
There is a cost to the livestock industry if animal care and animal welfare
issues are ignored. In simple terms, ignoring animal welfare issues is
a public relations nightmare. Don Broom, Professor of Animal Welfare at
the University of Cambridge has written that ignoring animal welfare issues
actually shortens the sustainable lifetime of current systems. Some systems
such as intensive livestock production units may have animal welfare advantages
in that animals may be cleaner and disease may be easier to prevent or
control, ideal environmental temperatures maybe easier to maintain, etc.,
but if the public sentiment builds up against a system because of perceived
welfare problems then the lifetime of the system is shortened, since the
public will lobby to abolish the system.
Mitigate pain in routine procedures
Should we try to mitigate the pain that livestock may experience during routine procedures? Surely the animals recover! In terms of animal welfare the pain associated with branding, castration or tail docking may in fact represent only a very little blip in an animal's entire "tank" of lifetime experiences. Nevertheless humans can empathize with animals in regards to pain because pain is one sensation that humans also experience. Based on comparative anatomy, physiology and behaviour we assume pain experienced by animals to be similar to pain experienced by humans (Flecknell and Molony, 1997). As humans, we know what pain is and in general, humans avoid as much pain as possible. Given the choice many people will opt for analgesics when faced with dental or surgical procedures. Historically many human procedures were done without analgesics, however once they became common, available and affordable people readily embraced their use. We use analgesics to spay and neuter our pets, a procedure the general public is familiar with, so it is not surprising that the general public is concerned about our lack of attempts to mitigate pain in farm animals. Historically, we had no choice. Now choices are available and they deserve consideration.
Every livestock industry has a list of routine procedures that inflict some pain (e.g. branding, castration, dehorning, teeth clipping, beak trimming and tail docking). There is a general belief that procedures performed early in life are less painful. Even in human medicine it was once common to perform open heart surgery on neonates without anesthesia. We now know that infants recover faster when procedures are done with analgesics on board prior to the procedure. There is no evidence that pain is absent in young animals (Rollin, 1989), but there may still be sound reasons to complete routine procedures at the earliest age possible. We have known for sometime that the younger the animal at the time of injury or procedure the faster the wound healing (Johnstone, 1944). Even if the pain of the procedure was identical at all ages, the total amount of suffering would be less for the younger animal since the healing is faster. Performing procedures as early as possible and mitigating pain for our farm animals are steps that society would support. The general belief that anesthesia is expensive and time consuming may not be as valid an argument as once believed. Kohler, et. al. (1998) have demonstrated that general anesthesia is fast and safely induced with CO2 in piglets and castration can be performed without any reaction.
Not surprising, the more we know about painful procedures the more we realize that the pain experienced by the animal is more complicated than we originally thought. Also, the science is not supporting the notion that these painful procedures are all short lived. Work with dairy calves has shown that the dehorning procedure causes behavioural and physiological indicators of pain to persist up to 24 h, long beyond the time frame that local anesthetics can help. Faulkner and Weary (2000) have suggested that producers consider using not just a local anesthetic during dehorning, but recommend giving the calf a long acting non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as ketoprofen to diminish painful side effects. In beef cattle the welfare friendly method of dehorning would be to use genetics (Stookey and Goonewardene, 1996).
In chickens, there is now good morphological, neurophysiological and behavioural evidence that beak trimming leads to both acute and chronic pain (Duncan, 1993). We know that the beak is a highly sensitive and an innervated appendage. Following beak trimming chickens alter their eating habits and restrict their feed intake, indicative of chronic pain. In addition, following beak trimming the blunt end of the beak has been shown to develop neuromas, bundles of nerves that are known to spontaneously fire and result in chronic pain. Tail docking in swine to reduce cannibalism has also been shown to result in the development of neuromas (Glatz, 1998), while neuromas in tail docked dairy cows have been suspected (Barnett et al., 1999). Neuromas that develop in human patients as a result of amputation are responsible for phantom limb pain. Could tail docking cause chronic pain in the stump of the tail? While neuromas generally indicate the presence of persistent pain, it was not known whether the neuromas observed in pig tails were from nerves associated with sensation of pain, or in fact associated with motor functions (tail movement).
In truth we do not know how to prevent cannibalism in chickens without beak trimming nor tail biting in pigs without resorting to tail docking, despite the fact that beak trimming and tail docking are not always 100% effective. The underlying causes of the vice are allusive. Factors that have been identified as contributing to the problem are overcrowding, increased competition for feed and water, adverse environmental features such as high levels of noxious gas, noise, humidity and temperature. Birds kept in free run systems have been especially prone to cannibalism. The incidence of tail biting has also been reported in pigs kept outdoor, again suggesting that the problem is more complicated than we think. Attempts to recreate and study the phenomenon have been problematic. In addition, there may be a genetic predisposition for tail biting and feather pecking. If this is true, it may prove to be a valuable key if it can be controlled via genetic selection. In the end we need more research on the problem of tail biting and feather pecking if we are to understand it and prevent it.
What constitutes good welfare?
Professor John Webster (1993) stated, "An excellent test of animal welfare is to discover whether the owner can display his animals with pride to any fair-minded observer." In other words, even without a great deal of training or scientific measurements most people can assess whether animals are clean, healthy and content in a comfortable environment. Animals that are unhealthy, hungry, dirty, overcrowded, stressed and uncomfortable will show visible signs of their distress. It is a simple approach to defining animal welfare, but one that producers and the public would intuitively understand.
Another way to define welfare would be in terms of acceptable or unacceptable levels of production. One common sentiment often expressed by producers in defense of intensive production systems is the statement that welfare must be good because our production is so high. Without good welfare production would drop. Is this a true statement? Is it possible for welfare to be compromised and still have high productivity and efficiency? In the poultry industry, laying hens have been shown to have a high level of production at around 72 sq. in. of cage space. Below that space, the production per bird is reduced, suggesting that welfare of the bird below 72 sq. in. may be compromised. However, the greatest economic return and profitability is realized if birds are kept at 48 - 54 sq. in. per bird. Therefore the economics of the operation may actually favor compromising bird welfare. In such a situation producers keeping birds below 72 sq. in. can not claim the welfare of the birds is optimum, but they can claim the highest economic returns. In such a situation producers have stepped onto an economic treadmill that drives their decisions, but may be compromising welfare.
Could a similar scenario be unfolding within the swine industry? In an experiment by Brumm et al. (1996) the performance of barrows grown to 136 kg was maximized with .84 to 1.0 sq. meters of floor space per pig. Below .84 sq. meters of floor space/pig, performance was significantly reduced. Using the producers definition of welfare "that good performance equals good welfare" then we may be compromising welfare for pigs kept below .84 sq. meters per pig. However, like the poultry example we may experience improved economic efficiencies by crowding pigs. Powell and Brumm (1992) suggest that additional crowding over that previously recommended for optimum pig performance may be warranted economically. Producers that survive in the swine industry are likely on an economic treadmill that dictates their choices, while it potentially compromises animal welfare.
Setting livestock standards and eliminating cruelty
Should livestock standards and guidelines be set by economic forces? Stricklin (2000) wrote, "There are certain aspects of animals and the environment that should not be compromised regardless of the type and amount of benefit that might accrue to humans from such exploitation." Every industry is bound by some limits, based on moral and ethical views, that can not be breached without loss of society's approval. What are those limits for the livestock industry? In the end some type of welfare standards are inevitable in regards to slaughter, transportation and production. Already we have good regulations that cover slaughter and transportation. In regards to cruelty there must be zero tolerance and cases of abuse must be considered criminal offenses. Unfortunately, cases of abuse do occur and inevitably paint a brush over an entire industry, especially when exposed by extremist groups.
A case in North Carolina in Dec. of 1998 that resulted in criminal charges was portrayed on the PETA web site as an example of common swine production practices. It was a terrible case of abuse and cruelty, but in no way does it reflect the common practices on swine farms. However, extremists groups use such headlines as a vehicle for the delivery of other items on their agenda. Anyone reading about the cruelty case on PETA's web site will also be informed that, "Abuses like these are routine on today's factory farms, where pigs are packed together in such small spaces that they are unable to even turn around. They are fed hormones and antibiotics to keep disease down and profits up. Their tails are chopped off, their teeth are removed with pliers, and male pigs are castrated-all without anesthesia." We know that abuse and cruelty cases are uncommon, but at the same time we, the industry, must have practices in places and be constantly vigilant against abuse. It should not be the undercover operations by PETA that brings charges against the industry. It should be the swine industry charging its own members if they are involved in cruelty and abuse. It should be the slaughter plants and the swine industry that condemns the TV Survivor episode where a pig was inhumanely killed for entertainment and ratings. Surely the swine industry and slaughter plants are also interested in humane slaughter. Why should PETA look like the only organization that considers inhumane slaughter a problem? Should PETA look like the only champion of animal welfare? We are letting other groups do some of our work and then we complain when they go too far!
Cases of abuse are obvious targets for opponents of livestock production. However, it is not only PETA and animal rights organizations that are talking about cases of abuse. On July 09, 2001 Appropriations Committee Chair, Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat- West Virginia) an influential member of the U.S. Senate took the floor and spoke about animal cruelty. He was announcing an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations bill, a $3 million increase in funding for enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act and Humane Slaughter Act. Following are excerpts from that speech.
In the 21st century our livestock operations must have a zero tolerance
policy against abuse and cruelty and we must have steps in place to insure
that policy is followed. The necessary steps needed to prevent cruelty
and abuse include:
Grandin (2001) believes that rough handling and excessive use of stock prods in slaughter plants is not because people are intentionally cruel, but because they have become desensitized to the job they are doing and its impact on the animals. It is possible that as our production systems have evolved the livestock and poultry industries have become desensitized to the impact our practices and systems have on our animals? To an objective outsider (or the consumer) it would appear that some practices and some systems of production have stepped over the line of what is acceptable husbandry. Force moulting of laying hens through food restriction may be an example where a desensitized industry has rationalized a cruel practice for economic gain. While force moulting is not a common management tool in Canada, in the United States McDonalds and Burger King are requiring their suppliers to discontinue the practice. Ian Duncan (2000), a noted poultry and welfare scientists, when asked to supply a written opinion to Deputy Attorney General Gregory Gonot of California, reasoned (with scientific evidence) that to engage in "forced molting" in which food is withheld from chickens for 5 to 14 days in order to manipulate the hormones, would be considered a violation under California's animal cruelty laws. The poultry industry, by never setting self imposed limits, today finds itself engaged in an activity that at the very least offends its largest consumers (fast food chains) and at worst violates animal cruelty laws in the State of California! I believe the practice of force moulting by withholding feed has only a limited time within the industry before consumers will put a stop to it permanently. I also believe that keeping hens in battery cages at 48 sq. in per bird is another practice that will soon disappear because of consumer pressure (i.e. fast food chains) and because scientific evidence suggests the welfare of the bird is compromised at low space allowances.
Each livestock industry has some welfare issues that it must face. Lameness and downer cows within the dairy industry represent welfare issues that must be corrected in a manner that satisfies the social consensus. On one side of the coin (the producer's side) it may seem prudent to try to salvage injured or weak animals and not be wasteful, but the tide has shifted and society would say the greater sin would be to subject animals to prolonged pain and suffering. Today's consumers equate downed animals with cruelty and any livestock industry that believes it can transport and salvage weak and injured animals and maintain public support is mistaken.
The swine industry also faces considerable pressure in regards to gestation stalls. It is inevitable that the concerns in the UK and Europe over gestation crates will arrive in the US and Canada. Some organizations, such as the CIWF (Compassion in World Farming) that took an active role in the banning of sow stalls in the UK have set their sights on the US swine industry. Their material proudly boast that they will march across the US, state by state, if they have to, in order to ban sow stalls.
It some ways it seems ironic that gestation stalls should be attacked on welfare grounds when crates offer some obvious welfare advantages in reducing aggression and insuring individual feed intake. However, several scientific studies point out that the lack of exercise does extract a measurable cost from the sows in gestation stalls. Sows in crates have reduced bone strength compared to group housed sows fed the same diet (Marchant and Broom, 1996). It is not clear if the lower bone strength in crated sows is a welfare concern, but the argument could be made that they are at a higher risk of injury and bone breakage because of the weaker condition. In addition, the length of parturition time from start until finish and the birth interval between piglets is shorter in sows that have received daily exercise compared to sows kept in gestation stalls (Ferket and Hacker, 1988). Theoretically, you could expect and increase in stillbirths as the birth interval between piglets increases.
The expression of stereotypic behaviour by sows in gestating stalls is also used as evidence by opponents that gestating stalls compromise animal welfare. Stereotypies are behaviours that are a repeated series of movements with little variation that have no obvious or apparent function. Stereotypies are common among caged and confined animals and are seen in many zoo, farm animal and companion animals species. Stereotypies in sows include bar biting, drinker pressing and sham chewing. While many critics point to the behaviour as indicative of a stressful environment and blame the confinement as the main culprit, evidence suggests that hunger plays a major role in the development and maintenance of the oral stereotypies in swine (Terlouw et al., 1991). While stereotypies are an unwelcome behaviour and something the industry must address, the idea of group housing sows to eliminate stereotypies may not be the final solution. In fact, sows kept in dry lots display stone chewing behaviour, which is the comparative counterpart to bar biting. Also, groups housed sows on straw spend hours rooting through and consuming large quantities of straw. Bar biting, sham chewing, stone chewing and straw eating are all behaviours carried out by hungry sows. Keeping sows hungry for major portions of each day is probably a bigger welfare issue from the sows' perspective than confining them in gestation stalls.
In the end some alternative system will replace the gestation stall.
I believe their days are numbered. I believe this for several reasons:
The commercial farms that dominate today's livestock industry and sell on the open market are not rewarded for maintaining the highest welfare standards on the farm. If the packing plants will not reward producers for maintaining high welfare standards, then who will set the welfare standards, at what level and who will pay for it?
One option would be that government would set animal welfare standards.
The only clear advantage to this approach would be that all producers
would be placed on an even playing field; costly, but equal. The disadvantage
would be that legislation implies policing in order to keep minimum standards,
while it lacks incentives to provide the best welfare. In addition, any
legislation that places the producers at an economic disadvantage on the
global market would inevitably hurt producers, just as the viability of
the UK veal and swine industry has suffered under their animal welfare
legislation. Also, the current World Trade Organization has shown no sympathy
for countries that have welfare legislation, meaning that trade barriers
can not be enacted on welfare grounds or based on a country's social conscience,
at least so far (Burgoyne, 1999).
I would encourage producers to seek ways to increase profits by maintaining the highest welfare standards and by being paid for the value they have added to the product. There are some attempts to capitalize on animal welfare by labeling food. In the UK welfare friendly meat, milk and eggs are sold under a Freedom Food label following strict welfare guidelines developed and monitored by the RSPCA. In 1990 there were 119 producers marketing under the Freedom Food label. In 1999 there were over 4,400 producers marketing under the Freedom Food scheme. A similar venture is taking place among Quebec swine producers marketing under the du Breton logo and a Free Farmed label, monitored by the American Humane Association and sold in the States. It is possible to raise hogs under the highest welfare standards and be paid for the value added product. It takes vision, cooperation and marketing, but it can be done.
A livestock industry can not afford to ignore animal care and animal
welfare issues and expect to remain sustainable. Following are my recommendations
to address the animal welfare concerns voiced by consumers
For more information you may contact Dr. Joseph M. Stookey through e-mail at joseph.stookey@.usask.ca or by telephone at (306) 966-7154.
For a copy of the Proceedings of the 22nd Western Nutrtion Conference
2001 send request to:
Mr. Grant Wood P.Ag.
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