OLATHE, Kan. - Animal welfare groups, while seemingly pushy to get their points across, are also wise enough to claim anything that is left out there for them to take.
"If there's any slack out in the rope, we'll never get it back," said Dan Thomson, one of two Kansas State University speakers at the Animal Health Corridor Lecture Series, held Oct. 22 at K-State's Olathe campus.
"If you had asked a decade ago if we'd be in animal welfare, I'd have said no. But we've been drug into it."
Thomson, a veterinarian and director of the Beef Cattle Institute at K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine, shared the stage with Glynn Tonsor, associate professor in K-State's Department of Agricultural Economics.
Of the 100 in attendance, nearly three-fourths were in the animal industry but not as producers. They included educators, agribusiness personnel, financial officers and consultants. Thomson and Tonsor made it clear that attempts to challenge producers in how animals are treated aren't going to disappear.
"There's growing interest by the public that they want to know more," Tonsor said. "I don't see it going away soon. It will be useful if all of us come to terms with that."
Social issues are becoming more important to consumers. A Time magazine feature last March involved lab-produced meat. Readers were asked online if they would eat it and they overwhelmed the comment-gathering feature on Time's Internet page.
Comments included "Yuck" and "Americans have been proven to eat anything that comes in a nice package with the right marketing." But another played into the social concerns. "Beats eating GMO. Reduces animal slaughter. Solves world hunger. Looks promising."
Conversely, a majority of the Olathe audience of livestock-oriented adults said food safety, not animal welfare, was most important when making retail meat, milk or egg purchasing decisions.
Consumers have shown that how they vote in an election booth may not reflect their ways once they leave the booth.
"It would be a great study, people who say one thing but do another," Thomson said.
California passed Proposition 2 in 2008, which forced the poultry industry to move toward restricting hens from cages.
"They don't realize the price implication," Tonsor said. "We're getting signals that don't match. They prefer cage free eggs, but they're not purchasing them."
Data in recent years showed 4 to 5 percent of eggs sold in the United States were cage-free eggs. That could be caused by retailers charging a 57 percent average premium for those cage-free eggs.
Tonsor said the difference between voting and buying is being carried out more in the news media, on ballot issues and in legislative arenas than on the retail shelves.
There also is a feeling in states without ballot initiatives that producers don't need to be concerned, but "as states adjust, it gets to the point where processors force change," Tonsor said.
Tonsor said animal welfare research has shown:
- Public concerns are not unique to any species.
- Trust in the source of animal welfare information is the driver of ballot voting.
- Residents are insensitive to timetables.
- The public doesn't know about retail price impacts.
- Media attention to animal welfare influences meat demand, especially for chicken and pork. However, beef has not gained at the expense of chicken and pork.
- Online videos influence perceptions, not the willingness to pay.
- Mandatory animal welfare labeling has public support.
Thomson, being a veterinarian, focused more of his comments on animal treatment, both the good and the bad.
"Nobody wants to see abuse," he said, acknowledging issues brought by animal rights organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Animal welfare is everything we do every day for our livestock."
Food availability and affordability is vastly different outside the United States, he said.
"Poverty equals starvation and money equals food," he said. "In the U.S., food is free, about 6 percent of income, while in China and India, it's a third of the monthly income."
He said a study at K-State dining services showed food thrown away equaled one pound per student per day.
"Nobody cares about food prices because it's free," Thomson said. Attitudes will change when food gets expensive, as Tonsor illustrated with the price of cage-free eggs.
"If HSUS and PETA were serious, they'd be out there helping instead of filming their next video," Thomson said.
Producers need to walk the walk of strong animal advocacy, he said.
"You can't train anyone without changing the culture. Animal welfare is not checking a box. It is wanting to do everything every day," he said. "Define normal to identify abnormal."
Issues need to be handled with education and explanation. "If a person was abusing a downed animal, did they know they were abusing it?"
Both educators have the same general solution, or at least caution, for meat animal producers:
"Reduce the times we shoot ourselves in the foot," Tonsor said.
"Stop doing dumb things," Thomson said. "Don't abuse animals. If abuse happens, and there's a cruelty charge, that farm needs to be shut down."