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‘Doubt grenades’ lethal to beef industry’s fortunes

With everything from multimillion-dollar budgets and legions of fanatical supporters, animal activists have a lot of tools at their disposal for turning the public off of beef.

But by far the most potent weapon in their arsenal of clandestine YouTube videos and Twitter tweets is what Ryder Lee calls the “doubt grenade.” Instead of hurling shards of white-hot metal in every direction, this kind of ordnance can inflict lasting damage by casting suspicion from every angle.

“If we get doubt grenades going off on consumers, they are going to buy something else, pork or chicken or maybe not meat at all,” said Lee, manager of federal-provincial relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and a member of the National Farm Animal Care Council.

Lee was part of a panel discussing animal welfare issues at the Manitoba Beef Producers annual meeting here last week.

“If it goes off at the retail level, they are going to start telling us what we have to do different. If that grenade goes off at government, they are going to make us change with legislation and regulation.”

The “pink slime” debacle is one example of the carnage that can turn a once-thriving industry — the lean finely textured beef-processing sector — into an instant casualty.

Most ranchers would prefer to “keep their heads down and ranch,” said Lee, but NFACC is trying to head off future fiascos and “retain our social licence to keep raising cattle” via its updated Beef Code of Practice, the draft version of which is open to online comment until March 8.

“It’s a little dusty,” said Lee. “It was done in 1991, so it’s time to renew it.”

Dr. Joe Stookey, an animal behaviourist from University of Saskatchewan, observed that people on both sides of the issue are naturally inclined to think that their own viewpoint is “right” and those with opposing views are either “less enlightened,” or “naive, fanatical or crazy.”

In the case of urbanites especially, perception tends to follow cataclysmic shifts due to cases of “public outrage.” For the ranching community, a shift has occurred more gradually.

Changing views

“Tough questions” from over 80 students a year over two decades has caused Stookey — who comes from a typical farming background — to shift in his own stance on issues such as dehorning.

“Has our view shifted over time, or are we locked in?” asked Stookey.

Dr. Jim Clark of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said animal transport regulations are the current lightning rod for change.

Of the 18 petitions received by Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz’s office since 2009, 11 were aimed at transport rules, and in 2012, over 900 letters on the same topic filled his mailbox.

That, and new OIE standards, are driving a modernization of the transport regulations that have remained unchanged since the 1970s.

For example, Clark noted that Canada’s rules governing the time animals in transport can go without water are among the most lax among the country’s international trading partners.

In New Zealand, the maximum time they can go without water is 12 hours, in the European Union it’s eight hours, and 28 hours in the United States.

“A lot of this has to do with geography, but in Canada it’s 52 hours and can be extended to 57 hours,” said Clark, adding that the maximum time without feed in transit is 81 hours.

Regulatory amendments governing those issues have been underway since 2006, and a draft based on “outcomes” is ready to be released that would redefine overcrowding as well as give CFIA staff the power to euthanize injured or downer livestock.

“We’re not on the same page as some of our major trading partners and society in general,” said Clark. “This could become a trade barrier. The time to update our regulations is now.”

Video auditing

Scott Entz, vice-president of Cargill Meat Solutions in High River, Alta., said that animal handling now is very different than it was when he started three decades ago.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), with annual budgets of $25 million and $100 million respectively, are going after consumers with lurid, attention-getting campaigns such as renaming retailers such as Burger King “Murder King.”

“These folks don’t lack for resources,” said Entz.

Cargill’s strategy is to take away all opportunities for making the industry look bad, such as the “game-changing” Hallmark/Westland hidden “downer cow” video scandal of 2008 that led to a recall of 143 million pounds of beef.

To prevent giving the enemy any “doubt bomb” ammunition, Cargill has installed a 15-camera, third-party-operated, 24/7 video auditing system on key aspects of its slaughter line.

Any deviation from a set list of criteria sets off a chain reaction of instant notifications to management on the situation, he said.

Cargill recently invited a film crew from the “Oprah Winfrey Show” to tour a plant, and the “risky venture” ended up communicating a positive message.

“At the end of the day, it hopefully helped out not only us but the whole industry,” said Entz.

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