Dairies wrestle with animal-welfare standards

November 9, 2009 

Fresno County dairy operator Jamie Bledsoe says he's proud of how he cares for his animals. But his word may no longer be enough to satisfy the buyers of his milk.

Bledsoe, like many livestock farmers, operates in a new environment where animal rights groups, consumers and retailers are increasingly demanding assurances that farmers treat their animals humanely.

"As much as we may dislike this, this is the world that we live in today," said Bledsoe, a Riverdale dairy operator. "And it isn't going to change."

The brighter spotlight has forced livestock operators across the country to adopt new procedures, reach out to the public and fight back with their own legislation.

Bledsoe heads a California dairy-industry task force that is working to create uniform animal-welfare standards for its members. A similar effort is being organized nationwide.

"We have to play some offense in California and across the country," said Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Wisconsin.

The animal rights groups have struck a chord with consumers, and with retailers, who may soon be asking milk producers about their animal welfare practices, Galen said.

Galen's group is focusing on the care of cows from birth to death, including how they are transported. Bledsoe is part of a group put together by the Western United Dairymen in Modesto.

"We are hearing it from Walmart on down, that this is an issue," Galen said. "And we want to be out front on this."

Richard Cotta, president of California Dairies Inc., one of the state's largest milk suppliers, agrees that some type of animal-welfare certification will soon be a reality for his cooperative's milk producers. And he supports it.

"I think people have some very legitimate concerns, and they want to make sure that farm animals are being taken care of," Cotta said. "It is a concern we have as well."

The treatment of farm animals has been an issue for decades, but concern has accelerated over the last several years as the Humane Society of the United States and writers such as Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," take aim at factory farms — large-scale livestock producers.

The animal advocates say the large operations are hidden from public view and can perpetuate the abuse of animals. Scathing undercover videos posted on the Humane Society's Web site have shown hens living in filthy conditions and calves repeatedly being prodded.

"It has become very clear to us that Americans care about the treatment of farm animals," said Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society's factory farming campaign. "And we are seeing a much greater awareness of this issue on a national scale."

For years, consumer have been unaware of the treatment of farm animals and how they are processed, Shapiro said.

"Regrettably, many people think of Old McDonald's farm when they think about agriculture," Shapiro said. "And that is done purposefully. The dairy industry has spent millions of dollars to promote happy cows in lush green pastures, but little could be further from the truth."

The Humane Society's message about farm-animal welfare has resonated with consumers. The group's California campaign to eliminate the confinement of hens resulted in a landslide victory. Proposition 2 passed last year with nearly 64% of the vote.

Since then, seven states have taken action against farm-animal confinement practices, the most recent being Michigan.

And last month, the California Legislature outlawed tail docking, a practice that involves amputating a portion of a cows tail.

The Humane Society is not resting on its laurels. It has persuaded major national retailers — including Wendy's, Safeway, Burger King, Red Robin, Carl's Jr. and Hardee's — to use crate-free and cage-free eggs. Although the retailers have only agreed to buy a small portion of those eggs, Shapiro calls it a step in the right direction.

Agricultural leaders say that while they may not like the Humane Society's tactics — such as the undercover videos — they know the group has become a formidable opponent. And they want to avoid being regulated through public referendums.

"Some of the propositions sound good on paper, but they also can create unintended consequences," said John Madigan, director of the UC Davis International Animal Welfare Training Institute. "Will this make food cost more or make it less safe?"

Egg producers in California are wrestling with the aftermath of Proposition 2. Although the law does not take effect until 2015, some producers have begun to build cage systems that allow hens freedom of movement. And it is expensive.

J.S. West & Company in Modesto will spend more than $3.2 million for its new system, which will include perches, scratch areas and privacy areas for hens to lay their eggs.

"This is coming at a huge cost, and I don't think California voters understood that this would be a consequence," said Jill Benson, vice president of company. "We are doing our best to try and find a way to stay in business but also produce eggs in the best way possible."

Mace Thorton, spokesman for the American Farm Bureau Federation, said animal-rights groups cannot be ignored.

"They have really stepped up and captured the issue of animal welfare as their own," Thorton said.

In response, the farm bureau is urging farmers and ranchers throughout the country to express their thoughts about how they treat their farm animals.

Some farmers are using social networking sites such as Facebook or blogging to share their lifestyles with the public. Industry groups, including dairy and egg, have also posted videos about their farmers.

"We have to be able to really engage with members of the public in a values-based conversation that lets them know we share the same beliefs that they do about animal welfare," Thorton said.

In Ohio, farm leaders followed the Humane Society's lead and took their case to the voters. The state recently approved a ballot measure calling for the creation of the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board. The board — led by the head of the state's agriculture department — will oversee animal welfare issues.

Some farm leaders are using a different approach in dealing with animal-rights groups.

Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation in Modesto, regularly meets with Humane Society officials.

"Half my members think I am nuts. They don't think they are reasonable people," Mattos said. "But I believe that we need to have a dialogue. And I want to know what issues they are looking at, and I want to know if something is coming down."

Some believe the group's real goal is to eliminate all forms of animal production.

"I think they want to see a total vegetarian society, and they don't want to see any farm animals produced, period," said Scott Stuart, CEO of the National Livestock Producers Association of Colorado. "I just wish they would come out and say that so the public will understand what they are about."

Shapiro denies the accusation.

"If people chose to become vegetarian, that's fantastic. But that is not what we are after," he said. "We want to make sure that farm animals are not subjected to extreme cruelty."