Testimony before a House or Senate committee is not always the most scintillating reading. I’ve always marveled how legislators can stay awake during the most boring of hearings. I guess C-SPAN doesn’t zoom in on the sleeping sages.
But a set of statements presented May 8 to a House Committee on Agriculture subcommittee held my attention. The topic? The welfare of animals in agriculture.
There is a push to include specific animal welfare regulations in the 2007 farm bill, which may be why lawmakers called the hearing.
The topic is a tough one because, in the words of Gene Gregory, president of United Egg Producers, “it lends itself to emotion, unsubstantiated allegations and extremist tactics.”
“It’s also sometimes hard to know where concern for animal welfare ends and opposition to the very existence of animal agriculture begins,” he added.
I would argue that everyone – consumers and farmers alike – is concerned about animal welfare. But the gap between farm and nonfarm understanding about accepted livestock handling practices stretches wide from Manhattan to Malibu.
What’s unacceptable? I agree with renowned expert Temple Grandin: A good livestock producer will not tolerate abuse and neglect. A good livestock producer will not allow rough handling; throwing small livestock; beating an animal; or starving an animal. A good livestock producer provides shelter and properly euthanizes animals.
Grandin estimates that 75 percent of all livestock producers, truckers and slaughter plants do a good job of preventing abuse. But she also estimates 10 percent allow these abuses to occur frequently, and another 10 percent occasionally have problems with animal abuse.
That’s not good enough. Clearly, there is room for improvement and the industry would do well to shake out the bad apples.
Farmers could follow the example of United Egg Producers. The cooperative commissioned an unpaid advisory committee, made up of animal scientists, animal welfare experts, government officials and the American Humane Association, to review animal welfare standards and make recommendations for changes.
One of the most important was increasing the amount of space for each bird in caged production systems. Co-op president Gregory estimates that about 85 percent of the industry has implemented this and other recommendations.
And to use the UEP certified seal on their egg cartons, producers are subject to a third-party audit.
The science of animal welfare is still in its infancy. Producers will have to expect and accept changes as new research information emerges.
“Pulling together societal expectations and industry needs is a lesson in recognizing that guidelines for animal care benefit from being both science-based and dynamic,” testified Gail Golab of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Those are words I hope the legislators, activists and producers heard.
What they said: