Scientific claims won’t counter ethical questions about animal welfare

Pork producers can say that consumers don’t get it, that science is the basis for welfare and that castration doesn’t hurt, but the public won’t buy it — and that’s bad for business

If you’re a pork producer trying to convince someone your welfare practices are up to snuff, the last words you should pull out of your phrase book are “science” and “based.”

Speaking to representatives of Manitoba’s pork industry during the annual Swine Seminar in Winnipeg, Dr. Tim Blackwell outlined the pitfalls and missteps that hurt the image of pig farmers, including attempts to use scientific claims to answer ethical questions.

“People say if you want to know what to do with animal welfare, you have to be science based. Well, no. Animal welfare is not science determined,” he said, asking producers if they would consult a scientist to determine human rights or answer other moral dilemmas.

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Rather, animal rights are rooted in a number of traditions — some ancient, some modern — that are based on trust and expertise.

“When we try to decide what’s right and what’s wrong… I think the simplest way to determine this, is to try to define discomfort or pain as either necessary, or unnecessary,” the Ontario-based swine extension veterinarian said.

“And what the public does not want, where the public thinks you break your contract, is when you cause unnecessary suffering to an animal. We all know there is a certain amount of suffering — in our lives, in animals’ lives, you can’t make it perfect… but when it’s unnecessary for something to suffer, people get upset.”

He pointed to the current hot-button issue of sow gestation crates as an example.

When first introduced in the early 1970s, the argument could be made successfully that gestation crates were the safest, best method of housing sows at the time. Yes, they may have caused some discomfort, but it was a necessary discomfort, the veterinarian said.

But with new research and fresh technologies now allowing for successful group-housing models, it’s difficult to make that case any longer.

Especially when, as Blackwell points out, all of Europe has gone stall free and countries like Denmark are averaging 29.6 pigs per sow, per year.

“Today I think we have alternatives. We can provide all the things gestation crates do and we can let them turn around. And the public says, we really prefer those sows to turn around, seems only natural that a 400-pound animal ought to be able to turn around and spread out her legs,” he said.

However, he added that swine producers don’t struggle with animal welfare issues, so much as they struggle with public relations issues.

“Sometimes we don’t communicate well and sometimes we ignore our customers at our peril,” he said. “So the message is, we don’t really have problems with animal welfare, we have a problem where we aren’t always communicating well.”

Not communicating well includes using terms like “science based,” or responding to concerns over practices like castration by saying things like, “it’s standard industry practice” and “it doesn’t hurt.”

Blackwell said consumers need to be given credit, and they aren’t going to buy an explanation as simple as it doesn’t hurt the pigs. What that glib and unlikely answer will do, is damage any trust the consumer had in the producer and their industry, he said.

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“So the answer isn’t ‘it’s standard industry practice,’ the answer is we don’t like doing that… we understand that it hurts them, we wish there was an alternative — we’re looking for alternatives — but that’s a necessary discomfort that we would like to turn into an unnecessary discomfort,” Blackwell said, adding producers should also be open and honest about why male piglets need to be castrated.

And if a video surfaces of farm animals being abused? Don’t obfuscate.

“What we don’t do when they find some sort of abuse, we don’t hand the video to experts to analyze. It’s easy to know that kicking a sow in the head is wrong,” he said, adding that the people who raise swine should be the experts on the issue — experts who don’t need to outsource their opinions.

Dwelling on negative media coverage, or lamenting the fact the positive things pork producers do don’t end up on the news won’t help either.

“The media covers plane crashes, they don’t cover successful landings… get used to it,” the swine expert said.

Another non sequitur used by those in the industry to justify production practices, is to say swine welfare must be improving because productivity keeps improving. But Blackwell cautioned industry representatives from making that causal relationship.

“That’s like saying some kid in a sweatshop in Bangladesh used to make 50 T-shirts and now you’ve got him making 75, so now he must be better off — nobody believes that. There’s no connection between how hard you push a worker and how well the worker is treated,” he said.

Making the argument that city-dwellers don’t understand agriculture, and they would starve without the industry is counterproductive as well.

“The old, ‘if you start telling us how to farm we’re all going to starve to death’ — it’s just not true, we could live on pig feed. I mean pork is a wonderful food, but it isn’t necessary to feed the world,” said the veterinarian.

Producers do good work, but they need to be honest with the public and not write off those concerned with animal welfare as fringe extremists, Blackwell said, adding that he would consider himself among those interested and concerned with animal rights.

“Good welfare is your brand,” he said. “But brands can drift, and your brand drifts every time you start to talk about animal science instead of animal husbandry… maintaining trust is key.”

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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