I don't know much about Mark Bittman, food-opinion writer for the New York Times, but I know he has some pointed things to say about food production these days. In a recent column entitled Why Don't Farm Animals Get The Respect Pets Do?, Bittman uses an activist-coined term "common farming expectations," to lump together the bad apples in agriculture to paint a rotten picture of the hard-working farmers and ranchers who first, care and respect for their livestock on a daily basis, and two, produce a safe supply a food they are proud to feed the world and their own families.
In his column, Bittman writes, "It’s time to take a look at the line between 'pet' and 'animal.' When the ASPCA sends an agent to the home of a Brooklyn family to arrest one of its members for allegedly killing a hamster, something is wrong.
"That 'something' is this: we protect 'companion animals' like hamsters while largely ignoring what amounts to the torture of chickens and cows and pigs. In short, if I keep a pig as a pet, I can’t kick it. If I keep a pig I intend to sell for food, I can pretty much torture it. State laws known as 'Common Farming Exemptions' allow industry — rather than lawmakers — to make any practice legal as long as it’s common.
"We 'process' (that means kill) nearly 10 billion animals annually in this country, approximately one-sixth of the world’s total. Many, if not most, of these animals are raised (or not, since probably a couple of hundred million are killed at birth) industrially, in conditions that the philosopher Peter Singer and others have compared to concentration camps. Might we more usefully police those who keep egg-laying hens in cages so small the birds can’t open their wings, for example, than anger-management-challenged young people accused of hamstercide?
"But thanks to Common Farming Exemptions, as long as I 'raise' animals for food and it’s done by my fellow 'farmers' (in this case, manufacturers might be a better word), I can put around 200 million male chicks a year through grinders, castrate — mostly without anesthetic — 65 million calves and piglets a year, breed sick animals (don’t forget: more than half a billion eggs were recalled last summer, from just two Iowa farms) who in turn breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, allow those sick animals to die without individual veterinary care, imprison animals in cages so small they cannot turn around, skin live animals, or kill animals en masse to stem disease outbreaks. All of this is legal, because we will eat them," Bittman writes in his article.
I hate to re-post such a negative article on agriculture because such ill-informed pieces like these are simply intended to rally activist dollars, stir up controversy and impose fear on good-hearted Americans; however, I feel it's vitally important for all of us in the food business to note a few things.
1. Bittman isn't alone in his perception of what American agriculture is.
2. The graphic images developed by activist groups have seriously hurt our image.
3. We have to start doing a better job of TELLING OUR OWN STORY.
Yes, I used all caps to make my point clear. When's the last time you explained to someone what good animal handling practices are and how ranchers follow them? Or, how about enlightening our consumers about the benefits of the industry's Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program for both the animal and the end-product? As a beef producer, I truly believe I'm doing what's right by caring for my animals, being an environmental steward for the land and respectfully harvesting my livestock to help enrich and improve human lives. More importantly, I, too, am upset about the bad apples in our industry; I don't believe in animal cruelty, and I hate when I see another recall in the news. I think these messages are words our consumers are desperate to hear.
My challenge today was going to encourage all of you to respond to the article, but the New York Times is no longer accepting comments on the piece. Instead, I hope you will all look for new opportunities to share your story. Find another online article to post on, and while it's easy to get defensive about a negative blog spot, I hope you won't. Instead, focus your energies on sharing your positive story -- that means sharing something about the many generations of family members in your ranch history, explaining how you care for your animals and providing testimonies about the safe, wholesome food you produce at your place. I promise, a few minutes carved out to do this small task will make a big difference.