Social issues influence agriculture

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At the June 30 Ohio Fruit Growers Society field day at Patterson Fruit Farm in Geauga County, a passing comment from Huron County Extension Agent Ted Gastier triggered more than a passing thought for me.

After the Alar scare, producers looked around for a better way of doing business – and the IPM movement gained prominence, Gastier said at one of the field day tour stops. “We need to be able to tell people why we’re doing what we’re doing,” growers told Gastier.

Before you can tell consumers why you do what you do, you first have to understand it and be able to justify it in your own mind. Why are you doing what you’re doing. I don’t mean farming in general; I mean particular farm management practices specifically.

You can blast consumers for not having an inkling of what life on the farm is really like, or what normal accepted farming practices are. But consumers’ perceptions really do drive the market, witness the interest in biotechnology, concerns over foot-and-mouth disease, and our Page 1 story on Burger King.

Burger King followed in McDonald’s footsteps last week by adopting animal handling guidelines that all of its suppliers must meet. These suppliers will be audited through self-audits, surprise visits, and planned audits by Temple Grandin, Colorado State animal scientist and expert in animal handling, welfare, and facility design.

“Our new guidelines and audits are the right thing to do,” said John Dasburg, CEO for Burger King Corporation, in a company statement.

Dasburg, who joined the company in April, convened an advisory council that includes Grandin, Janice Swanson, Kansas State University, and David Fraser, the University of British Columbia – authorities in the field of animal handling – to recommend how the company can ensure its suppliers are handling food animals as humanely as possible.

The USDA is now on the hot seat, as Burger King, inspectors and others are demanding it actively enforce the federal Humane Slaughter Act. A survey Grandin conducted in 1996 concluded that only 25 percent of USDA inspectors enforce the Act.

Last year, McDonald’s beefed up its animal welfare requirements and quit using a supplier after the restaurant’s inspectors found specified humane practices weren’t used at its slaughtering plant.

These are big-time players voicing a societal concern about how things are perceived down on the farm and through the food chain to the table. Ignore them at your peril. McDonald’s alone has 28,000 restaurants in 120 countries that serve more than 43 million people a day.

Animal care and welfare are a priority for any livestock producer, obviously. Healthy, properly-raised animals are the most profitable. Bruises cost the U.S. beef industry $1 per animal on feedlot beef and $3.91 per animal on cows and bulls, according to a Colorado State University study. There’s economic sense, as well as your conscience, to pay attention to animal comfort and welfare.

The subject should command more research dollars to give producers credible guidelines to follow – what works, what doesn’t; why we should do this instead of that.

I’ve used this quote before, but Maryland farmer Steve Weber showed his wisdom in 1998 when I heard him tell a roomful of farmers: “You gotta do the right thing. If people don’t see you doing the right thing, they’ll see right through you.”

Like it or not, social issues will increasingly influence food production. Can you tell consumers why you’re doing what you’re doing?

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