Last month the livestock industry became painfully aware of the power of video and the broad reach of the Internet.

When animal-rights activists taped illegal animal mishandling at California’s Westland/Hallmark packing facility, leading to the largest-ever beef recall, the entire industry paid. Extensive media coverage, much of it inaccurate and misleading, created an impression that such behavior is common and that beef might be unsafe to eat.

But the California videos were not the only ones activists used to attack the livestock business last month. A group called the Handle with Care Coalition, an international alliance of animal-welfare organizations led by the World Society for the Protection of Animals, released undercover video footage and reports to support its new campaign against livestock transportation.

For now, the group is focusing on long-distance international or overseas transportation of livestock. Their two-year investigation and resulting reports document what they call the “four journeys of shame,” which include sheep shipped from Australia to the Middle East, cattle shipped from Brazil to Lebanon, horses shipped from Spain to Italy, and hogs transported from the U.S. mainland and Canada to Hawaii.

The group’s undercover videos, available at www.handlewithcare.tv, show mishandling; cramped, dirty conditions; sickness; and death loss among livestock during transport. European and American media gave the videos and reports wide coverage.

Once these groups have made their points about international or overseas livestock transport, their next targets easily could be feeder cattle trucked from Mississippi to Kansas, or stocker calves traveling from Montana to Texas.

Or consider Hawaii, which has over 80,000 beef cows. Because the state lacks adequate feeding or packing capacity, almost all the calves from Hawaii travel by ship to the mainland for finishing. Hawaiian producers have invested considerable time, effort and expense in developing weaning, preconditioning and transportation systems that protect the health and welfare of their cattle as they travel and make the transition into further production stages. Hawaiian producers depend on shipping for the survival of their ranching businesses.

Animal health and well-being are critical components across our beef-production system, and most handling and transport of cattle is conducted with appropriate care and consideration for the animals. But if you look hard enough for bad examples, you probably could find them.

Everyone involved in livestock production, from ranchers to feeders, sale-barn operators, veterinarians, truckers and packing plant workers need to recognize two 21st-century realities.

  • Ready availability of compact digital imaging technology allows anyone to photograph or record anything, anytime, anywhere. Almost every kid in the mall has a cell phone with a camera, and miniature digital video recorders, some as small as your palm, can cost less than $200.
  • Numerous activist groups and individuals are willing and ready to use that technology, either through planned covert activity or random opportunity, to document and attack your industry and endanger your way of life. Virtually nothing happens “behind closed doors.”

Managers across the industry must make these points to any employees who handle or transport livestock. Behave as if someone is recording everything you do. They probably aren’t, but then again, they just might. The livestock production chain can operate transparently without abusive practices and with nothing to hide. Do not provide more ammunition to these groups whose goal is to end animal agriculture.