Livestock producers are commonly the target of a whole cadre of activist-haters. But sometimes, the industry itself damages its own cause, without any help from the animal rights crazies.
Here’s a tale from a place far away, involving a production industry practice seldom used in an industry with little connection to U.S. agriculture.
Yet it bears scrutiny, if only for the incredible -- what do we call it . . . naiveté? tone-deafness? cluelessness? -- displayed by the protagonists. If nothing else, the following story is Exhibit A in why animal agriculture is sometimes its own worst enemy.
Here’s the headline: “Australian industry plans calving induction phase-out, looking to avoid animal welfare scrutiny.”
Right away, there is a huge problem. Avoid animal welfare scrutiny? That is exactly the wrong approach anyone in the business of producing animal foods should adopt. The goal isn’t to escape notice. Anyone with eyes and ears understands in this era of cell phone videos, that’s impossible. Instead it should be to develop and manage operations such that there’s no need to avoid scrutiny.
Those who have a background in dairy understand what calving induction involves, but for those who might not, it’s a procedure by which a veterinarian administers an injection that aborts a cow’s pregnancy, such that the cow gives birth to a premature calf that is most often killed.
Why? To quote David Basham, chairman of the animal health and welfare committee for the Australian Dairy Farmers, the practice is done to “synchronize the calving pattern to match feed supply,” as he explained to Australia’s ABC Rural news service.
Take a step back and become an ordinary consumer for a moment. Not a producer, not an animal scientist, certainly not a diehard anti-industry activist. When you hear the world “abortion,” what comes to mind? No matter where you stand on a woman’s right to choose, abortion is not a positive, uplifting concept. At best, it’s divisive and controversial. At worst, it’s perceived as an abomination.
Now, couple the ugliness associated with abortion — human or bovine — with the implication that Australian dairy operators are trying to escape notice by animal welfare advocates. Ever hear of the phrase, “It’s not the crime — it’s the cover up?”
The combination of bovine abortion and industry deception is a toxic mix that would disgust even loyal supporters of animal agriculture, the people who regularly purchase and consume meat, poultry and dairy products.
Continuing to approve of calving induction, while simultaneously trying to hide from the public, almost forces even fair-minded people to view producers as bad guys who need to be regulated into submission.
To be fair, the Australian dairy industry has officially committed to phasing out calving induction, and New Zealand dairy operators earlier this year voluntarily implemented a ban on the practice. And according to a recent survey done by Dairy Australia, only 1.3 percent of that nation’s dairy herd undergoes induction.
But I don’t care if it it’s one-tenth of 1 percent. The extent of the practice doesn’t matter, especially when an industry leader continues to pour gasoline on the public’s perspective.
“There’s a constantly changing perception in the community about what’s acceptable,” the Australian Dairy Farmers’ chairman said. “The dairy industry has recognized a need to change and has decided it’s necessary to move away from this practice.”
My question is this: Why was the practice done in the first place, and more to the point, why is it only now that a phase-out is contemplated? What, somebody woke up one morning and thought to themselves, “You know, perceptions are changing. I guess we might need to re-think the use of bovine abortions to improve our feed efficiency.”
There is one dynamic that is not constantly changing, and it’s called common sense. When a controversial practice that is ripe for criticism by animal advocates continues to be deployed to improve feed efficiency, the industry is setting itself up for criticism, and in the process, handing over a trainload of ammunition for the vegetarian and eco-activists who want to shut down the whole business.
Indeed, a spokesperson for the Australian animal rights group Voiceless called the procedure “a brutal practice” and demanded immediate legislative action to outlaw induction.
“A mother cow, who is in the stages of a natural pregnancy, is forced to give birth prematurely,” Elise Burgess told ABC Rural. “The result is a calf obviously born premature, more often than not they won’t survive, and they will be killed straight after birth through blunt force trauma, which is often a hammer.”
Anyone else see a potential problem for producers in that statement?
Even if induction produced magnificent gains in feed efficiency, which is doesn’t, it wouldn’t be worth it. That’s why less than 2% of operators continue with the practice. No amount of efficiency makes up for the destruction of public trust and the enduring enmity of the very consumers to whom producers are trying to market their products.
Defending the practice — or deceiving people about it — makes no sense, common or otherwise.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator