Animals not just food
Humane Society hopes to bring consumer’s attention to humane care for livestock
By MARK FAHEY
People seldom go into grocery stores in Washington Court House looking for meat from farms with humane animal treatment.
The shrink-wrapped stacks of beef, chicken and pork come from the major sellers, Cargill and National Beef Packing Co., and there hasn’t been much demand voiced for anything else, said Kroger Assistant Head Meat Cutter Randy Monroe, who has worked at the location for 24 years.
But a new group of Ohio farmers assembled by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is hoping to bring consumers closer to the people that raise their cattle, pigs, chickens and sheep, and to promote farming practices that lead to better treatment of livestock.
The new Ohio Agricultural Council of the HSUS, announced at the HSUS Humane Lobby Day on April 24, is one of only three such groups in the nation, following successful efforts in Nebraska and Colorado. The councils are charged with highlighting farmers who use humane animal management, helping consumers connect with those farmers and encouraging other operations to transition to more humane practices.
“It’s a good opportunity for all of us in agriculture to have a dialogue with our consumers,” said Joe Maxwell, vice president of outreach and engagement for the HSUS. “That’s what this program is all about.”
Maxwell, a fourth generation hog farmer from Missouri, said that the three state agriculture councils, created in October 2011, April 2012, and April 2013, will use suggestions from local farmers to learn about how best to market humane products to consumers. Eventually the program is expected to expand into other agricultural states and across the country.
“Each state is very, very different,” Maxwell said. “Ohio is a great place for us to look at and start a council — the agricultural base is very rich and full of great farmers, but it is very different from what we’d find in Nebraska or Colorado.”
The council members, William Miller (Butler County), Mardy Townsend (Ashtabula County), Bruce Rickard (Knox County), Joe Logan (Trumbull County), and Warren Taylor (Meigs County), each work for farms that use production methods approved by the HSUS. The five farmers will hold meetings on how to improve agriculture in the state and how to encourage farmers and consumers to invest in operations that choose humane treatment.
Mike Bumgarner, vice president for the Ohio Farm Bureau’s Center for Food and Animal Issues, is concerned that the new council doesn’t accurately represent Ohio’s wider farming community.
“Our disappointment with what we saw with the council is it doesn’t seem to be very inclusive,” said Bumgarner. “We commend them on the effort, but there is no broad-scale diversity within their production practices. If we’re going to address issues within our farming community we’ll need to have all groups represented.”
Maxwell said that the founding members of the council were largely selected because they had been active in communicating with or working with the HSUS in the past. Additional farmers will be encouraged to join the council after approval from existing members.
The HSUS has worked with the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board in recent years to implement a number of reforms, including phasing out veal crates, gestation crates and battery cages, three long-time targets of animal rights activists. Bumgarner said that the creation of the new council implies that the existing board, which has been open to input from all citizens in the state for several years, is not adequate.
“It seems to be suggesting that their judgment is better, that they know better about what our standards ought to be,” said Bumgarner.
Maxwell disagreed with that interpretation, saying that the board’s success had been one of the factors that had lead the HSUS to consider Ohio as the next state to establish a council in the first place.
“We are actually very proud of the Care Standards Board and commend the Farm Bureau,” he said. “One reason we selected Ohio is that agriculture leaders have stepped up to the plate and are really taking on these tough inhumane activities.”
Still, many Ohio farmers seem wary of the Humane Society. Bumgarner said that there are significant differences of opinion between the HSUS and many of the Farm Bureau’s members. Some of the organization’s suggestions, including the “Three R’s of eating with a conscience,” — refining dietary choices by switching to products with high welfare standards, reducing consumption of animal products, and replacing animal products with plant-base options — seem directly at odds with the economic interests of farmers in the meat industry, he said.
Donald Conrad, a Fayette County dairy farmer, said that he hasn’t seen widespread animal abuse on Ohio’s animal farms. He said he supports amicable conversation about the subject, but that there are differences of opinion about what constitutes humane treatment.
“There may be a few isolated cases and maybe some abuse,” he said. “But for most farmers, their income comes from these animals and they take good care of them. The agenda of some of the Humane Society is just trying to eliminate a lot of animal agriculture period. I think people are going hungry now and everybody can’t be a vegetarian. Animal protein is a necessary item, too.”
Mardy Townsend, a founding council member who runs a 125-head grass-fed cattle farm in northeast Ohio, said that the idea that the HSUS is a vegetarian organization like some other groups is a misconception.
“The Humane Society of the United States is an animal welfare group, not an animal rights group, and that’s a very important distinction,” Townsend said. “I can guarantee, knowing a lot of HSUS members, that they’re not all vegetarians.”
Townsend said the HSUS encourages people to reduce their meat consumption because the organization is concerned about living in a world with finite resources.
“Not everybody in the world can consume the amount of meat that we do in this country. There is no way to produce that amount of meant and you can produce more vegetables or more grain on the same piece of ground,” she said. “That’s what’s behind their thinking that we should not be consuming the amount that we do right now.”
The main goal of the new council, Townsend said, is not to criticize the Care Standards Board or Ohio’s farmers, but to connect the state’s 480,000 HSUS members with producers employing a certain type of agricultural practices. Despite his misgivings, Bumgarner said the Farm Bureau approves of the council’s effort to make it easier for consumers to understand where their food originates.
“Any time there’s questions about food and where it’s coming from, we’re open to dialogue,” he said. “I think consumers do want to know where their food comes from and I think consumers should have choices. Any time you try to connect consumers with where their food comes from, that’s a good thing.”
The council is planning on looking at existing systems for connecting consumers with farmers with good practices and will adopt a system that works well in Ohio. The system would help Ohio’s farmers take advantage of the state’s better animal welfare practices, said Maxwell.
Dr. Lee Schrader, a local veterinarian who serves as the executive director of the Fayette County Humane Society, said she thinks that Americans will be willing to pay more for animals that are humanely raised if they are given the option.
“I’m hoping that other farmers will be motivated when they see consumers responding positively to these animal raising practices and that they will also be motivated to change,” she said.
Right now, there is no good way for a consumer to go to the grocery store and know whether he or she is buying meat that has come from a humane source, said Daniel Hauff, an animal rights activist who has worked for Mercy for Animals and PETA. Maxwell agreed with Hauff that the majority of animals products currently come from factory farm models.
The HSUS associates the rise of factory farming with increased abuse and the decline of the family farm. According to the organization, an increase in industrial animal production over recent decades corresponded with the loss of 95 percent of the nation’s egg farmers, 90 percent of its pig farmers, and 40 percent of its cattle farmers. In Fayette County, the total number of farms fell from 1,120 in 1970 to only 600 in 2008, even as the average size of each farm grew from 231 acres to 370 acres, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“At some point operations get so large and they lose the simple focus on the animal,” said Maxwell. “I like to reinforce on my farm that I’m a pig producer, not a pork producer.”
Maxwell said that although larger corporate-controlled farms may find it more difficult to make humane decisions, it is possible for all farming operations to transition to more humane methods. Townsend said she would certainly be open to bringing some larger producers onto the council and is especially seeking hog and poultry farmers to join.
“There are good animal practices for all species, and for someone to be on the council they would need to be willing to abide by those standards,” Townsend said. “Size is not the issue as much as the actual practices.”
For grass-fed beef producers like Townsend, she said the operation didn’t require very many changes to be in line with what the HSUS recommends, and the council’s efforts to connect producers with enthusiastic consumers may bring better prices for those products and help motivate other farmers to make the switch.
“If other producers want to join with us, that’s great. If not, the free market rules,” she said. “All farmers need to make tough decisions about their production methods, no matter what animal you’re raising, and it’s always hard to change your production methods.”
Schrader is optimistic about how the council could transform animal agriculture in the state.
“I’m hoping that this board will help to highlight the good practices of the members of the council and will allow us to see that there is another way of raising animals,” said Schrader. “As a civilized society, it’s our moral obligation to prevent unnecessary suffering. I would love to see a basic change in the way that farm animals are raised.”
Animal Scientist Dr. Francis Fluharty of Ohio State University strongly disagreed with the premise that large-scale or industrialized operations lead to animal abuse. In fact, he said, large-scale feedlots often have excellent animal welfare practices because they are under scrutiny and often have veterinarians and nutritionists on staff to tend to animal health.
“I get very concerned when divisiveness starts in agriculture, where one type of production makes it seem as if another type of production is less ethical, less humane or less safe,” he said.
Fluharty helped establish guidelines for beef subcommittee the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board and worked to create Ohio Signature Beef, an antibiotic-free and hormone-free beef product raised in Ohio on family farms. He said that animal welfare is dependent upon the management of an operation, and checks and balances in the system often catch animal abusers. A consumer’s decision to buy certain meat products is a personal decision influenced in part by brand marketing, and not an ethical issue, he said.
“There are a variety of consumers who want to buy things for a variety of reasons,” Fluharty said. “But it concerns me when we scare consumers and we publish things that make them think that one type of product is superior to another, especially superior on some moral ground, which I do not believe.”
Fluharty said that smaller producers use land less efficiently and small processors often have to charge more to take advantage of every part of an animal. He said the country would not be able to feed its growing population if all producers used the less technologically-advanced methods of the past, and food would become a must larger portion of our disposable income.
“I understand the desire of people for nostalgia — that’s one of the reasons for the growth of farmers markets and alternative production — but that’s a personal choice for everyone,” he said. “We better be careful who we’re pointing fingers at, because a lot of times what we think doesn’t follow the science or the logic of animal health.”
(Mark Fahey is a staff writer for The Record-Herald in Washington Court House.)