Animal Rights Debate Evolving
DTN News Service - April 16, 2007
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The fight over what defines a humane practice in animal agriculture and food production will only grow among state and federal lawmakers and industry and activist groups, as evidenced by panel members who spoke Monday before the North American Agricultural Journalists annual meeting.
With all but sharpened claws, leaders for the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Agriculture Alliance showed how polarizing the debate over animal welfare will be in the coming years.
John Balzar, senior vice president of communications for the Humane Society, said even leaders within the animal rights community are surprised at the pace of change as businesses such as Smithfield Foods, Maple Leaf Farms and Burger King are announcing plans to change the practices of their suppliers over issues such as sow gestation and treatment of poultry. Balzar compared animal rights with past American struggles over child labor, women's suffrage and segregation.
"Farm animals are finally getting their fair share of America's humanity," Balzar said. "It's amazing, isn't it?"
Kay Johnson, executive vice president of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, emphasized that industry is not against change, but it should be based on reason, science and experience. Farmers, not activists, should be dictating animal-husbandry practices, she said. People pushing for bans in certain practices often are "arrogant" and "constantly point out what's wrong but offer no solutions," she said.
The risk is pushing more pieces of livestock and food production out of the U.S. That's the irony of the debate, she said, because then the country would have less control over the practices and quality of food than it does now.
"Ultimately, we will find ourselves being a nation of food importers," Johnson said.
Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food safety for the Food Marketing Institute, said grocers, which her group represents, have focused on ensuring livestock and poultry are raised in safe, clean environments free of cruelty. The group has pushed for best practices within the industry and has helped to ban some of the smaller gestation crates for livestock that were viewed as too restrictive.
One of the key challenges, she said, is ensuring farmers and processors follow higher humane standards, and she noted the industry is trying to establish some audit procedures.
Another challenge is that there is not much actual research being done on animal welfare and not many real experts, Hollingsworth said. More funding is needed in those areas, she said.
At forums on the farm bill over the past two years, members of key agricultural groups have emphasized to policymakers that provisions attempting to define humane practices, pushed by animal rights groups, should not be part of the 2007 farm bill. Balzar said the Humane Society understands the political environment animal rights groups face with the farm bill in Congress.
"I think we will make our case good and strong, but you have to have a realistic view of Congress and the chairs and where and when," Balzar said.
Balzar also acknowledged the Humane Society and associated groups have taken on the tactic of attacking livestock production practices such as gestation crates for sows in states with little actual hog production. Voters in Florida and Arizona have banned such crates and now there is legislation in Oregon, a state that has fewer than 1,500 total sows.
"Is your criticism fair? Maybe," Balzar said. "Do you start out in the ring with the bigger guy, or do you start out with the little guy?"
Johnson, who stated that current production practices help protect animals from extreme weather, also said the industry should provide consumers with accurate and responsible information about production practices. Yet she defended ads such as the "Happy Cows Come From California" campaign, showing Holsteins grazing in fields of grass, even though the vast majority of California dairies are confinement facilities. Johnson did say the ad has been controversial within the industry but is no more dishonest than ad campaigns for other products.
"It's meant to be entertaining and a marketing tool to sell product," she said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com.