Friday, March 07, 2008

A CALL TO ARMS

By Steve Kay, Editor & Publisher, Cattle Buyers Weekly, Petaluma, CA

Delivered to the National Meat Association’s annual convention, February 21, 2008

U.S. animal agriculture is under attack as never before in its long history. Today, it is inhumane handling of spent dairy cows. Tomorrow, it will be hogs lying prone in a truck because of mild heat stress. The livestock industry must urgently work together to get out front of the next “expose”. It must ask itself: What will the next HSUS video show? For there will be more.

I was in Virginia last Friday addressing cattlemen there. I congratulated them on keeping their beef cow herds largely intact after their terrible drought last year. I also suggested they keep their leanest cows that aren’t in the best of shape at the back of the farm, well away from anyone who might film them.

Then on Tuesday, I joined a media teleconference hosted by the Humane Society of the United Sates, during which Representative Rosa De Lauro of Connecticut said the Westland/Hallmark episode clearly showed that the U.S. food safety system is collapsing. Representative George Miller of California and HSUS President Wayne Pacelle made similarly emotive comments.

That was all to be expected. What disappointed me was the total absence of any kind of response or rebuttal statements by USDA or the industry. So all the media stories I read Wednesday morning were totally unbalanced. Ordinary Americans might therefore reasonably believe that the food they eat has become less safe, when, as we know, the opposite is true.

My point is: The U.S. meat and livestock industry urgently needs an industry-wide public relations body or mechanism to monitor and respond to every challenge to and claim about industry practices and other issues as they arise. If the Secretary of Agriculture is unwilling to immediately rebut such outrageous accusations from members of Congress, then someone representing this vital sector of the U.S. economy must. It seems that, once upon a time, the American Meat Institute performed this function, at least to some extent. But AMI now appears to be MIA, missing in action.

As Kirk Ferrell of the National Pork Producers Council told NMA’s Government Relations Committee yesterday afternoon, there is a war going on. It is a war for the hearts and minds, and I would add the stomachs, of all Americans.

We can all sit back and say: “Well, Americans will always eat meat and poultry products.” That’s true but it is missing the point. If the industry continues to allow the HSUS and others to make all the plays, the industry will have forced on it more and more legislative and regulatory restrictions that will make it even harder for many of you to stay in business. A downsizing of the American meat industry will mean consumers will simply eat more imported products.

The beef industry is already downsizing at the packing plant and cattle feedlot levels because of shrinking cattle numbers in North America. I would be horrified if further downsizing occurs because the industry did not come together and act very rapidly to tell its story, be it on animal welfare or food safety, in a forceful, factual way.

To do that, the industry must speak with one voice. It needs to have one or more highly credible spokesmen or women who can articulate to the American public that much of what HSUS and other industry critics are saying today, and will say tomorrow, is simply not true.

The industry should also consider an extensive campaign to educate members of Congress with the facts as to food safety, animal welfare and other management practices in the industry.

The industry must also take steps to anticipate what targets might be next and work to get ahead of any future attacks, be they on confined animal feeding operations, the use of growth promotants and other pharmaceutical tools that cattle and hog producers use, the castrating of male cattle and hogs, and other animal husbandry practices.

The enemies of U.S. animal agriculture have identified themselves and have revealed their tactics. It is time for the meat and livestock industry to draw up its battle plan and counter-attack.

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