Column #219

Folks in agriculture and food processing are running scared these days. It doesn’t matter if it’s farming crops, raising livestock, or packing and processing meat, vegetables, or fruit—there are people out there who want to put them out of business.1

The actors who are discrediting food producers and processors get away with their antics because there’s a huge divide between consumers and where their food comes from. Most of the people in our country have no clue about what are or are not proper practices for economically and sustainably raising and processing food. They do not know the many laws governing those industries. Worst of all they expect practices to conform to utopian ideals which can’t possibly exist on a commercial scale. Consequently, with so little knowledge and understanding consumers can be easily manipulated into believing almost anything critics say—especially if they hear the same story over and over and over again.

Fantasy farming is easy. All it takes are one or more of these backstops: 1) a great job in town, 2) a huge retirement income, or 3) great wealth. Couple those financial backstops with a willingness to spend it on imagery and you’ve got a fancy farm. But even financially subsidized, picturesque agricultural enterprises have their moments of “imperfection.” That’s when “it” hits the fan. Images of those moments could make any of them look like the worst of the worst in food production. More on that below.

There are many causes that depend on denigrating one aspect or other of agriculture and food processing. By publicizing shocking images and spinning negative stories pied pipers can raise money for their causes or better market their goods and beliefs. Of course, activists are in luck because bad actors are everywhere. You can’t name a profession that doesn’t have a few participants who do bad things. So a common tactic is to locate a bad actor and then, with hidden videos and such, publicize their discretions and imply they represent the entire industry.

Identifying bad people is important to everyone. Farmers, ranchers, and food processors don’t want them around giving everyone a bad name. The same can be said for medical people, policemen, teachers, religious people, used car salesmen, politicians, and on and on. Nobody wants bad guys functioning in their respective industries. But a few bad folks will always be around even though many are being caught and stopped every day.

Unfortunately, since we live in an age where too many folks rush to judgement based on feelings rather than reason, overzealous folks with missions can easily harm innocent, hard working, law-abiding people. That happens when activists malign the many practices that are actually good, accepted, safe, nutritional, sustainable, and legal. Because the vast majority of consumers do not have practical and scientific experience in food production and are preconditioned by all the negative propaganda, they readily accept critical stories because they’ve heard about those “bad” practices before. Nothing is more acceptable to people than to hear what they already believe is true.

Here are just a few examples of actions that have been blown all out of proportion.

Close up images of dead animals or animals in distress have effectively created a lot of negative sentiment. Every economic livestock operation has quite a few head. In every population there will be some injuries, diseases, and deaths. Visit any ranch at the wrong moment and it could be struggling with some real problems. To a novice their proper procedures for addressing their problems and the numbers involved can be easily misconstrued. Too bad these outsiders never stop to compare livestock operations to the disappearances, sicknesses, injuries, and deaths of the many different pets people keep in their homes.2

Feedlots, poultry houses, and pig barns are favorite targets for criticism. But how many Americans have visited one and learned how they actually operate? If they did, they’d report those facilities are similar to retirement homes for the elderly where food, shelter, healthcare, and social interaction is provided. In addition most houses and barns are climate controlled! And just like when people get sick and/or die in retirement homes, deaths occur in the agricultural settings too. What many folks do not realize is that for a ranch to be profitable its animals need to live and grow which means they are content, healthy, protected, and well fed.3 4 5

Vegetable and fruit packing and processing plants get maligned too. Produce packers are often condemned for sealing vegetables in modified atmospheres. It’s a perfectly legal and safe way to keep the vegetables fresh. In no way is it dangerous. But to the uninitiated it can be made to sound scary and very dangerous. That’s only one of the many examples of ridiculous accusations used by detractors.6

Meat plants are often condemned for inhumane practices. Yet most of them, especially the biggest ones, have facilities and follow practices that were designed by Temple Grandin. Never before in history have slaughter plant practices been more humane. But the general public is totally clueless.7

Spraying fields is often criticized for poisoning the environment and the food being raised in those fields. A zealot thinking that way when viewing that practice could end up condemning an organic operation that’s spraying “approved” organic applications. If another zealot says organic chemicals are safe and conventional chemicals are deadly, once again the public is misled. Organic chemicals provide the same or nearly the same levels of protection from insects or weeds as do the approved manufactured pesticides. That’s because both are toxic! Interestingly, there have been several instances where natural organic pesticides were banned because they were not safe. This is why all applications must pass safety tests. But the activists don’t want that message out.8

Some negative perceptions occur when “it” hits the fan and the best practices to remedy the problems aren’t very pretty. Ranching, farming, and processing can be dangerous, dirty, and rather ugly work. Weather can be too cold, too windy, too hot, and worse. Power can go out. Water pipes can break flooding dry areas severely stressing livestock. Snow storms introduce major problems from collapsed buildings to stranded animals dying in the pastures. Water tanks break and animals can run out of water before the problem is diagnosed. Fences break and animals get loose and lost. Droughts stress animals and people alike. Animals also fight endangering handlers and each other. (I’ve broken up my share of bull fights over the years.) Animals small and large can get mad and attack people. Animals giving birth can have problems and possibly die. Wild animals can invade and kill domestic animals—even grown cattle. Livestock get diseases which must be treated and that can be a real rodeo. Trucks and trailers, tractors and combines can break down or get stuck in the field—always at the wrong time. The list of possible setbacks is endless and images of these stressful times aren’t pretty.

I fully understand why ranchers and farmers are very leery about trespassers or unannounced visitors showing up on their property. Activists can come posing as salesmen, census workers, meter readers, lost travelers, and even nice guys looking for employment. Who knows if they for are for real? They might even be thieves casing an operation because, being way out in the country, it appears to be an easy target? We never know these days.

Being standoffish is not a good thing because the public really needs a better understanding of what it takes to raise food. Look back 75 years ago and most folks knew how to wring a chicken’s neck and pluck it. They were that close to the farming community. But with the current crop of folks we have today, the food raising and processing industries’ unwelcome mats will not likely change. And even county fairs can’t help because they only show the best face of agriculture. Fair visitors have no concept of the sacrifice that was required behind the scenes for an exhibitor to be showing off their best products.9

I don’t have a solution. It’s a problem that involves many moving parts. Maybe better educators and a friendly media might help. In the meanwhile, don’t expect farmers and ranchers to welcome unsolicited visitors these days. It’s way too scary.

To your health.

Ted Slanker

Ted Slanker has been reporting on the fundamentals of nutritional research in publications, television and radio appearances, and at conferences since 1999. He condenses complex studies into the basics required for health and well-being. His eBook, The Real Diet of Man, is available online.

Don’t miss these links for additional reading:

1. That ‘Census Worker’ Might Be an Animal Rights Activist

2. Study Investigates Birth, Death Rates for Dogs and Cats for the First Time by Jessica Tremayne from DVM360

3. Take a Look Inside One of the Nation’s Largest Cattle Feedlots by Michelle Miller, Farm Babe from AgDaily

4. Biosecurity of Pigs and Farm Security from U.S. Pork Center of Excellence

5. Animal Welfare for Broiler Chickens from National Chicken Council

6. Modified Atmosphere Packaging for Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

7. Dr. Temple Grandin's Website: Livestock Behaviour, Design of Facilities and Humane Slaughter by Temple Grandin

8. Mythbusting 101: Organic Farming > Conventional Agriculture by Christie Wilcox from Scientific American

9. Why I’m Troubled by Society’s Skewed Relationship with Animals by Amanda Radke

Food Inc. Review by Ted Slanker

What The Health by Ted Slanker

Being Cyberbullied by Animal Rights Activists is a Real Concern by Taylor Leach from Dairy Herd Management

Farmers Live in Fear with Death Threats from 'Violent' Vegan Activists by Olivia Rudgard, Social Affairs Correspondent and Jonathan Pearlman, Sydney from Telegraph Media Group Limited

Animal Activists May Have Inadvertently Killed 100 Rabbits While Trying To Rescue 16 by Natasha Ishak from All That’s Interesting

What Burglars Don't Want You to Know from The Urbach Letter