FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Taking on a timely topic is a good way to generate discussion, and Yvonne Thaxton has managed to do that in the short time that the Center for Food Animal Wellbeing has existed. Thaxton is director of the center, which the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture established at the Fayetteville campus in early 2011.
"It has to do with changes in communication," said Thaxton, whose own credentials in the field include service as a researcher on the Mississippi State University poultry science faculty and as vice president for science and quality assurance at Marshall Durbin Food Corp. in Birmingham, Ala. "It's difficult to make people involved in animal agriculture understand how we are perceived from outside the industry, but I think we're making headway."
The center – which was established with the support of a $1 million gift from the Tyson Foods Foundation matched by the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation – exists not only to bring some light to the subject but also to review animal agricultural research and consider its impact on the wellbeing of animals. "This includes confinement, transportation, every aspect of the agricultural animals' life," Thaxton said.
According to an analysis of the topic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, scientists should measure animals' wellbeing in different environmental conditions and their behavioral and biological reactions to stressful situations such as being constrained or transported.
Part of the problem that Thaxton perceives is many people get only quick soundbites of information about animal welfare.
The center sponsors an annual symposium that brings together people from academic and industry roles to compare notes on the realities and the public perceptions. Candace Croney, an associate professor of animal sciences at Purdue University, addressed the issue at the center's symposium last August.
"The definition of animal welfare is different between consumers and farmers. Farmers view welfare as meeting animals’ basic needs for food, water and shelter, while consumers define animal welfare in terms of letting the animals live natural lives and giving them quick, painless and humane deaths,” Croney said. "We have a perfect storm culminating for U.S. agriculture. If society believes the industry isn’t self-regulating, they will take steps to do it for us. We need to emphasize animal welfare as a key component of ethical, sustainable agriculture. We must take care of people, animals and the environment.”