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Animal welfare issue calls for consumer education from ag

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Sheridan – “A complete recipe for disaster” is what American Farm Bureau Federation Deputy Director for Public Relations Mace Thornton calls the American public’s understanding of modern livestock production methods.
    In an early-November presentation at the Wyoming Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting, Thornton outlined the general lack of understanding that most Americans have of agriculture. He cited the recent vote in California in which 63 percent of voters sided with a ballot initiative that will phase out gilt stalls, pork gestation pens and egg production cages by 2015.
    “The most valuable asset we have is you,” he told the ranchers and farmers in the room, whose meeting was themed “Wyoming Faces of Agriculture.” “You are a priceless resource. Your credible voices, personal stories and commitment to care for your livestock are all things we can never buy. In California our side didn’t have enough voices or time to offset the tsunami of money and celebrity and defeat the proposition.”
    Farm animal welfare is an increasingly controversial and complex topic. “While modern livestock farms produce low-cost meat for consumers, some contend it’s at the expense of farm animal welfare,” said Mace. “The nation’s foremast animal care scientists agree the move toward intensive livestock production has in some ways improved animal welfare.” He noted protection from predators, comfortable temperatures and better access to health treatments as a few of those improvements.
    “For critics of animal agriculture, it has become easy to employ rhetoric against cages, crates and stalls,” said Thornton, adding that PETA and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have led to a new public awareness of farm animal welfare. “They’ve led the public to mistrust and question the ethical standards of America’s farmers and ranchers who raise, tend and care for livestock.”
    Mace said those groups aren’t yet satisfied with their work. “The animal rights caravan will march onward, and agriculture remains in its sights,” he said. “Unfortunately, the natural tendency of someone standing in the road when they see a semi truck is to roll out of the way. In the case of retailers and meat processors, they roll over. They cut deals with the animal rights groups to curry favor with consumer perception. Their decisions are about pure marketing advantage.”
    To correct misconceptions about agriculture, Mace said it’s important to find out how much information consumers have and what their opinions are. Because more information was needed to identify exactly what people want in terms of farm animal welfare, AFBF commissioned a comprehensive nationwide survey with Oklahoma State University on consumer opinions.
    The survey found that while animal welfare does not rank as highly as other societal issues like food safety and poverty, most people did say they want farmers to do a better job taking care of animals. The survey also revealed a “halo effect” around small farms.
    “Seventy-eight percent said they believe livestock farmers with higher standards of care produce safer, better tasting meat,” said Thornton. “That’s a key finding for us, because that makes our messages on animal care even more valuable.”
    The survey and research into consumer opinions led the AFBF Board of Directors to allocate funding for the Ag Challenges Initiative. “Today it is more important than ever that farmers and ranchers step out to tell the story of American agriculture,” said Thornton. “It is vital you put your faces on the issues confronting us. Consumers today want to know your hands are on the wheel and that you are looking after your farm animals as carefully as you look after your own families.”
    “It’s up to you to tell your stories of farm animal care,” he said, suggesting stories of cold nights or holidays spent with animals in the barn or pasture. “If you do not tell your story of ethical animal care and the morals that drive you as farmers and ranchers, other folks are out there who are more than happy to do that for you.”
    Thornton said the tactics and strategies involved in the campaign to defend agriculture’s doctrine are not what one would consider conventional in Farm Bureau circles. “We have to constantly position ourselves in relation to what the other side’s doing so we’re firmly between them and the consuming public we serve,” he said. “While we continue to believe in the truth, honor and glory of sound science, our research shows that farmers can talk about science but only on ethical grounds, rather than solely on scientific merit.”
    “We need to tell our stories and dig out our emotion and our emotional messages to run against the other side,” he directed, saying that all these things can be based on science, but science cannot take center stage. “We have to communicate on the consumer level about things like trust. America’s consumers want to trust and believe in America’s farmers and ranchers. We must extend to them a reason to believe in us and an excuse to trust us.”
    Thornton said it is vital that ag producers stay focused on a constant, consistent strategy because HSUS continues to test the water. “They could be looking at a number of states with big populations centers that might have some agriculture elsewhere in order to claim a bigger victory,” he said. “We don’t know where for sure, we only know they will pop up.”
    “The effort is all about you taking the time to tell your own stories. The top-performing message is this: healthy animals mean healthy food for you and your family. It’s all about drawing the direct connection to the kind of good care you provide your livestock,” he said. “Explain the fact it doesn’t make sense for you to do anything but keep your animals healthy. Consumers equate healthy animals to healthy food, which is a big positive for our side.”
    For more information on AFBF’s animal welfare education efforts, visit Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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