Commentary: Horse of a different color

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In the culmination to a long and occasionally embarrassing struggle with both USDA and animal activists, a New Mexico meat plant received federal approval this week to begin operations as a horse meat plant.

Roswell, N.M.-based Valley Meat Co., after compliance with multiple federal requirements, and after filing a lawsuit charging that USDA was dragging its feet on approval, was notified that the department is indeed legally compelled to assign meat inspectors to the plant, allowing Valley Meat to become the first packing plant allowed to slaughter horses since Congress banned such operations in 2006.

The company quickly issued a statement touting its victory.

“Today, Valley Meat Company received its Grant of Inspection from USDA FSIS to process equine animals at its Roswell facility. Valley will now begin final preparation to hire 40 to 100 employees over the coming weeks and months so that they may go to work providing a humanely harvested, safe, legally compliant product to the world markets. Valley looks forward to working cooperatively with USDA FSIS to ensure that all applicable laws and regulations are followed.”

Let me help with that statement.

First of all, stop bragging about “looking forward” to working with the government to “ensure that all laws are followed.” No, no, no.

You’re in the meat business. You already know what the laws are—or at least you should. Your goal isn’t to “partner” with some agency to see if, together, the two of you can find a way to follow the rules. C’mon. That’s like saying, “I just signed a lease on a brand new car, and now I’m looking forward to working cooperatively with law enforcement to ensure that all applicable traffic laws are followed.”

Yes, I understand that if you’re running a business, creating a cooperative relationship with a regulatory agency is vastly preferable to the alternative. However, as far as the public is concerned—and PR statements are ultimately designed for public consumption—the USDA inspector isn’t stationed in the plant to explore cooperative relationships with management, but to make sure the final food product being produced is safe and sanitary.

A more effective way to communicate an organization’s eagerness to be a good, law-abiding corporate citizen is to make the point that internal, company-created rules exceed the minimum standards that government imposes.

The idea is that USDA sets the floor in terms of safety; the company aims for the ceiling. To extend the analogy, obeying the speed limit isn’t something a trucking company should be boasting about. That’s a given. Their message should be that they’re dedicated to operating their vehicles with the utmost safety, to driving defensively at all times and to sharing the road with motorists in a courteous, respectful manner that transcends the traffic laws.

Likewise, a meat company needs to be dedicated to providing consumers with the utmost in safety, quality, and wholesomeness, a process that starts—not ends—with regulatory compliance.

Wooing the opponents

Second, if there is any “cooperation” to be referenced in a news release, it should be directed at the groups or segments of the public who have an issue with the company’s operations—or in this case, its very existence.

Instead of “reaching out” to USDA—as if that’s even an option—how about reaching out to the animal rights groups and horse-loving activists to explore ways to “work cooperatively” together on animal handling and to address other issues of concern—such as the (alleged) presence of veterinary drug residues?

Sure, that’s not likely to happen, but corporate statements aren’tsupposed to be about communicating actual items on the corporate “to do” list. They’re about positioning the company’s core values, its culture, if you will, in terms that potential customers, consumers and citizens in general can understand and appreciate.

Instead of expressing a commitment to work with USDA, how about a commitment to work collaboratively with your opponents?

There’s probably zero chance that equine activists would ever break bread with the owners of a horse slaughter plant, of course, but as far as the public’s concerned, the outreach itself makes the company look like the good guy.

In the end, all corporate communications are about all the good things to which the firm is committed.

And looking forward to obeying the law isn’t on that list.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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Kristie Brand    
Dayton, OH  |  July, 03, 2013 at 12:43 PM

Excellent writing Mr. Murphy! I rarely agree with the stance of the cattle industry but am so glad I was directed to your commentary through the Chronicle of the Horse.

T. Neff    
SW MO  |  July, 03, 2013 at 01:06 PM

Must be a slow week for Mr. Murphy. The author of the article is apparently not a word smith such as yourself. Your comments seem somewhat nit-picky to me. Sounds to me like Valley is anxious and ready to get to work. The market will dictate whether or not the business is successful, the opponents will have lettuce, chicken, beef or whatever it is that puts them at an elevation to look down on those with differing opinions.

V. Johnson    
Sk, Canada  |  July, 03, 2013 at 08:06 PM

As a horse breeder and supporter of humane horse slaughter, I couldn't agree with you more, T. Neff !

Tom Durfee    
July, 06, 2013 at 02:32 PM

AS Fire fighters die we cut funding to them and then fund horse slaughter. The U.S. Forest Service's $2 billion-a-year firefighting budget - the government's biggest - has been cut by 5 percent. Agency officials say that has meant 500 fewer firefighters and 50 fewer fire engines than last year. Just think of the 19 fire fighters that died, maybe if they had the funding that would be used to slaughter horses they would be alive today.

Bill Murray    
Colo.  |  July, 07, 2013 at 12:39 PM

Tom Durfee are you out of touch or just plain stupid .....

Tom Durfee    
July, 08, 2013 at 05:56 AM

No bill that is your job get an education.

SD  |  July, 08, 2013 at 01:38 PM

It is highly unlikely there is anything that could have saved those firefighters, considering that weather, or possibly fire induced winds, apparently caused the changes in wind direction and speed which trapped those men. Improper management of public lands in previous years has caused too much fuel which makes fire danger much greater, and causes far more intense fires, according to those close to, living, and working in areas where some of the worst fires have occured in recent years. Most importantly, have CURRENT firefighting budgets been cut??? Most of the so called 'cuts' have been in proposed budgets for FUTURE spending at federal levels. Does putting wild horses (and most are actually feral horses, that is, horses which were domestic that years ago were turned loose on federal lands and bred with truly wild horses) into even the best of care facilities is about as kind as putting people into concentration camps was.....and there are not many such facilities which could reasonably be called 'best' for any reason.

Craig A. Moore    
Billings, MT  |  July, 12, 2013 at 09:16 AM

NO. You educate yourself. The cost of excess wild horse care in the west costs $75 million per year and that doesn't include all the retirement costs of the government workers that made a career out of caring for worthless animals. Time they are processed and not corralled and fed. Maybe that billion dollars over the last 12 years could have been put to better use.


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