Humane housing top consumer concern

Consumer demands about animal treatment on farms have challenged scientists and ethicists to think about how livestock production might be improved. 
| File photo

Ethical consumerism involves purchasing products believed to be raised in a humane and sustainable manner

COLUMBUS, Ohio — There is a shift toward ethical consumerism in the developed world with more people asking pointed questions about animal welfare and sustainable farming.

“Once people have food security, they can afford to think about how their food is produced and how animals are treated in the process of becoming food,” said Candace Croney, director for the Centre for Animal Welfare Science at Purdue University.

Consumer demands about animal treatment on farms have challenged scientists and ethicists to think about how livestock production might be improved.

“We do have significant animal welfare issues involving virtually every aspect of livestock and poultry production,” she said at the National Institute of Animal Agriculture’s annual meeting, which was held in Columbus April 3-6.

“It is highly contentious in the United States and in every developed nation at this point.”

One of the most polarizing issues is housing for pigs and poultry.

Purdue research in 2014 asked people about practices such as sow confinement, use of farrowing crates, tail docking, teeth clipping and ear notching.

Housing emerged as the greatest concern for the public.

Further, the survey found 14 percent of respondents said they decreased their pork consumption in the past three years, primarily because of animal welfare concerns. Those eating less pork reduced consumption by more than half.

“If you are a member of the pork industry, that should concern you,” she said during a day devoted to animal welfare discussions.

The survey found the greatest concerns were among Democrats, women and younger people. Less concern was voiced by consumers from the Midwest, those living in rural areas and those with no information about animal welfare.

While nearly half said the greatest attributes for eating pork were food safety and taste, 15 percent said they ranked animal welfare as an important consideration.

“We think this reflects a movement toward ethical consumerism. People are trying to express their values in the marketplace by their purchasing with attempts to purchase products they believe do the least harm, ” Croney said.

“Food has become more than just sustenance, reiterating we only have this conversation in relatively affluent countries.”

Sow housing comes in many forms, and each has its advantages.

Options include conventional stalls, free access stalls, bedded group housing, pastures, hoop barn and group pens on concrete slabs. Some are not economically feasible or could lead to more predation, diseases or aggression among pigs.

Science has constraints because it can answer some welfare questions, such as how well pigs perform under certain systems, but it cannot describe an acceptable quality of life for an animal because that is an ethical position.

There needs to be a balance between science and values that still allow farmers to make a living and provide safe food.

“There are no best systems for sows, and every system comes with trade offs,” she said.

“The question becomes, what is acceptable for you and who gets to make these decisions.”

Universities studied hen housing, including conventional cages, aviaries, enriched cages, free range and pastures, under the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply.

The enriched colony cage system came out best scientifically, but the demand is for cage free and science is not shifting public opinion.

Most people who were surveyed could not identify where they receive their information about farming. However, 12 percent cited the Humane Society of United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as information sources. Social media came in at four percent while commodity groups had almost no influence.

The American Humane Farm Program offers a voluntary certification program for laying hens, turkeys, broilers, ducks, bison, dairy cattle and goats, pork and beef.

Many production systems are acceptable, said veterinarian Janet Helms, national director of the American Humane Farm Program.

“We believe in contemporary agriculture,” Helms said.

“It is generally large scale and we support that. We believe food should be affordable and we want to provide choice.”

The organization was founded in 1877 and has evolved from protection of horses to movie animals and pets as well as a farm animal welfare program that started in 2000.

Producers and companies may apply for the American Humane Certified accreditation and must meet criteria based on the five freedoms of animal care. Independent third party audits from firms such as Validus are conducted, and a passing grade of 85 percent is required. Each audit costs about US$2,000.

The program can provide suitable standards for small and large operations.

The program requires pain mitigation for dehorning and castration. No branding is allowed.

Enriched programs for laying hens are outlined. More space in housing systems should be allowed. Humane stunning and slaughter are advocated. Antibiotics are acceptable because sick animals deserve treatment.

Participants are expected to provide training for employees and management. There is also a whistle blower policy in cases of abuse.

People join a program like this because they want the independent third party audit and a label for their products. It is also a risk management tool to show they are audited and can protect customers.

The program focuses on continuous improvement, and standards will change as science learns more. Helms wants a practical system as well.

“I want to provide an affordable and ethical choice for the American public,” said Helms.

The organization has run surveys that found 75 percent of those polled said they were prepared to pay more for humanely raised meat, dairy, poultry and eggs.

A humanely raised label ranked as the highest in importance over antibiotic free, organic and natural labelled products.

However, some families cannot afford any added attributes.

“In the U.S., one in five children go to bed hungry, so those households require a lower cost food.”

However, there are opportunities for continuous improvement that would still keep food affordable.

Animal agriculture

This is how Janet Helms thinks animal agriculture can be improved:

  • Proper stunning of poultry before slaughter
  • Transportation of livestock needs further evaluation and improvement
  • Improved sow housing
  • Pain management for various treatments
  • Identification of animals
  • Disposal of spent hens — Few facilities are available to process the birds as food so many are composted on the farm. “We know that one spent hen would fill up a 50 ounce can. What could we do with a 50 ounce can of chicken meat in terms of the child food problem?” Helm said.
  • Sexing chicken embryos — Europe was leading the development of that technology but abandoned it, so male chicks are still killed.
  • Colostrum management — Many calves do not get their first gallon of colostrum in the first hours of birth. Many dairy calves are not fed enough calories while they are being reared.
  • Alternatives for hormones used for growth and synchronization for breeding
  • Disease control — One million beef cattle die of respiratory disease every year. “(Lack of) use of bovine viral disease vaccines is the biggest problem we have in beef and dairy production,” she said. Many companies provide products for that particular problem. A producer needs to follow vaccination protocols, biosecurity and surveillance, but not enough do.
  • Depopulation of animals — This needs to improve, particularly when mass destruction is required for large animals.

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