A recent panel discussion on animal welfare touched on many topics, yet one recurring theme left a lasting imprint on its participants. While the discussion focused on animal care and food safety concerns for all consumers, the millennial audience and the vocal role they are taking to drive animal welfare practices across the food chain took center stage.

During The Food Dialogues®: Dairy Forum that took place on January 28 in Boca Raton, Fla., Bruce Feinberg, global animal health and welfare officer with McDonald’s, told the more than 300 people in attendance and hundreds watching online that social media has allowed consumers to reach out and self-educate around agricultural issues, and companies must understand the relevance to consumers.

The U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance® (USFRA®) hosted the event during the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) Dairy Forum 2015. Elisabeth Leamy, 13-time Emmy Award-winning journalist, author and Dr. Oz consumer investigative correspondent moderated the panel, “Animal Care and Consumers’ Emerging Expectations,” which was the 26th installment of USFRA’s signature panel series.

A portion of the discussion focused on the responsibility that everyone across the food chain has when it comes to animal care. As Dr. Marcia Endres, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor of dairy science at the University of Minnesota explained, “When humans domesticated animals, they entered into a contract to provide food, water, shelter and protection – to provide them a good life.” 

Robin R. Ganzert, Ph.D., president and CEO of the American Humane Association expanded on what a “good life” means and explained that humans’ contract with animals provides five essential freedoms: freedom from pain and suffering; freedom from fear; freedom from discomfort; freedom from hunger and thirst; and the ability for animals to express their natural behaviors.

“Now consumers simply demand that our contracts with animals must include humanely-raised,” said Dr. Ganzert. “It’s a core value so many of us share and now what I love to see is consumers moving together and actually becoming that voice for the animal. And what they are also looking for in humanely-raised is to make sure the humanely-raised definition of better treatment of animals is transparent.”

The conversation also focused on panelists’ opinions on transparency, and the use of undercover videos. Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, said the examples shown on video are an aberration in the way farmers and ranchers across the United States treat their animals. “Does it happen? Yes, and it’s a crime. We as an industry condemn these actions and that’s why we have a program to address animal care.”

Mike Reidy, senior vice president of corporate affairs, Leprino Foods Company, whose company has first-hand experience with animal activists using undercover videos, stressed that there is a dramatic need to over communicate. “You can’t communicate after an event happens. We need to have the conversation in advance.” His company is committed to leading the industry in consistent consumer-facing communication activities and spoke about how they have improved its animal care program.

“We as an industry are proud of what we do,” added Chuck Ahlem, dairy farmer, Hilmar Jerseys, Hilmar, Calif. who highlighted some of the innovative technologies his farm is using to make his dairy cows more comfortable, such as the use of water beds. “We have a responsibility to communicate to consumers about what we do. Dairymen are proud of the hard work they do and the care of their animals.”

When asked whether consumers were satisfied with how farmers take care of animals, Dr. Ganzert noted, with agreement from all the panelists, that there is a big disconnect between agricultural practices and consumers’ knowledge and education about what goes on in the food system and with our food supply. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for dialogues such as this for agricultural entities to explain how it is to raise animals in these times.”

This is why IDFA felt having The Food Dialogue focused on animal care was so critical. “This was a perfect avenue to expand communication between consumers and our members about why animal welfare is so important in all elements of the dairy industry,” said Connie Tipton, IDFA president and CEO.  “Our partnership with USFRA allowed us to explore how U.S. livestock is raised and food is processed against growing consumer perceptions that often conflict with actual animal care and production practices.”

USFRA Board Chairwoman Nancy Kavazanjian said that the mission of USFRA is to help farmers and ranchers, along with the agricultural industry engage in this ongoing and important discussion. This is why, said Kavazanjian, USFRA hosts Food Dialogues across the country.

“We’ve always likened the discussions to ones you might have around a dinner table. That is, if you are having farmers and ranchers, industry experts, scientists, media and the consumers over for dinner,” said Kavazanjian. “Like a lot of topics when you sit down at the dinner table, you’re not always going to agree on everything, but we need to be open-minded and respectful of other people’s opinions. The same holds true for our Food Dialogues.”

For more information about USFRA or The Food Dialogues, visit FoodDialogues.com. For more information about the IDFA’s Dairy Forum, visit http://www.idfa.org/forms/meeting/Microsite/dairyforum2015