What the Public Sees

Do you ever think about what the public sees of the beef industry? Or what they think of the beef industry? Not a week goes by that some story on Animal Welfare, or rather the lack of good welfare is in the papers or news. We have been lucky in agriculture -especially in the grazing culture- to have a consuming public that generally trusts farmers. However every bad news story erodes that trust a little more. That is why we should challenge ourselves to try and sit back and try to see our industry as the public would.

First thing they don't see much of is the "happy" cows and calves out on pasture. That is usually in a back field somewhere. Where the public does see our animals is when they are in transport on the road, and this often isn't the best picture. We have all heard panic bawling calves on a truck stopped at a stop light. This will raise the level of anxiety in our consumers as well as in the calf. In fact, that is the number one issue that consumers write to the Minister of Agriculture and Food about.

photo of calf with head sticking out of the front of a squeeze chute

The next spot consumers may see cattle is at an auction mart. Again, not usually a pretty picture and one we have become very barn-blind to as we load, unload and move cattle through a facility. We hit cattle that are already moving, and electric prod use is still pretty prevalent. We need to try and step back to see it as a consumer would; or better yet, get a non- farming neighbour to go with you and ask them what they think. Most changes are not that big a deal but more about being aware of what we are doing and learning to watch and interpret an animal's reactions.

photo of a group of beef finishers at a livestock auction

At this point, many producers will comment that why do they care what some naïve member of the public (with no farm animal experience), thinks. The "why" is because we want them to continue to see beef as a desirable protein choice. That is why our Beef Code of Practice will be very important to the industry and why we need to become aware of what is in it, and practice it. It will become our contract with the public as to how we raise beef when they can't see what is going on. Look for the final copy to be out this fall.

photo of syringe being filled from a medicine bottle

If we don't, we will continue to lose market share as consumers move to more branded products and demand "humane" attributes that may or may not benefit the animals. Some production systems will turn this to their advantage by producing beef raised under various protocols, and charge accordingly.

The good news is that although farmers use different words than the public they have a very balanced view of animal welfare that fits well with public views. This was found in a survey run by Dr. David Fraser of the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia. We need to tell the good news story about how cows and calves are run and how beef is produced. We need to explain procedures we do such as castration, dehorning and vaccinations and the reason why we do it. If we can't explain them, then we need to take another look at it ourselves and question why we do them.

Even in the final slaughter of cattle consumers are very accepting if we don't try to hide things or spin the information, but just present it in a very open manner. The American Meat Institute recently followed that advice by creating a Video Tour of a Beef Plant Featuring Dr. Temple Grandin - find it on YouTube.

Animal Welfare and our codes of practice can be a future opportunity for enhanced marketing of a well raised product. We just need to step back and see it as the public sees it!

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300
E-mail: ag.info.omafra@ontario.ca