Empathize with your critics: consultant


Animal welfare | Transparency can help producers and processors win points with customers

Livestock producers and meat processors shouldn’t dig in their heels and prepare for a fight when they come under fire from animal welfare critics, says a former Maple Leaf Foods executive. 


Ted Bilyea, who is now an agri-food consultant, said industry officials should discuss concerns transparently rather than reacting defensively.


The message he delivered at a recent Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan meeting in Saskatoon was a familiar one, but Bilyea added a twist: the need for authenticity and empathy. 


“When you show empathy to consumers, suddenly you’re on the same side as they are. It changes the dynamics of the conversation and that’s a huge thing that I think we’ve seen happen,” Bilyea said in a later interview, just a day before a W5 expose on CTV thrust the issue of animal production and welfare back under the spotlight of mainstream media.


The TV piece showed the inner workings of a Manitoba hog farm, resulting in an investigation into abuse allegations and reigniting a debate familiar to producers and industry officials concerned with leveraging favour from a public increasingly distanced from the farm. 


“Defensive doesn’t work. I’m trying to suggest that we never go there. That we always go into discussion. We always work with people that are opposed to meat in general and we try to work with people that are rational and will have that discussion,” said Bilyea, who retired in 2005 as executive vice-president of Maple Leaf. 


“I think the proof is in the pudding. You can look at all the companies that are actually working quite well with the (Humane Society of the United States) and other groups that are talking about what they’d like to do. Those people have good intentions too — just different.”


Challenges from these groups have resulted in new demands from retailers and large restaurant chains that will change how hogs and hens are housed over the next several years. 


Bilyea said officials should work with the critics to find solutions that can ease concerns. He pointed to new research that shows the benefits of fresh air in hog barns and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency’s interest in pain mitigation as examples.


“The key thing to communicate: ‘we don’t have the answer to it necessarily, but, you know what, we’d like to get the answer and we’d like to spend some money getting it,’ “ said Bilyea. 


“Just being transparent about that will get you a long way in society.” 


He said a different approach could be more costly for the industry, noting Greenpeace’s winning record against companies on environmental issues. 


John Scott, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said retailers don’t make these new production demands recklessly.


“Walmart is not asking for those things for sustainability initiatives because they think it’ll be a swell thing to do today,” he said.


“They’re doing it because they know the consumer is going to de-mand it down the road.”


He said producers are best advised to adapt. 


“Walmart, when they’re asking for something, there’s something there,” he said. 


Bilyea outlined how Maple Leaf began moving chilled pork products into Japan, meeting that country’s strict rules by redesigning plant operations and altering how hogs were handled. 


The move created a new market for the company and improved animal welfare, he said.


“So that’s where you can wind the two up and say it does work,” said Bilyea.