“Humane” Becomes Synonymous with Agenda-Driven Marketing

Over the past few years, certain words have evolved to invoke an involuntary shudder that I cannot suppress. “Sustainability” is first on the list (painfully ironic given that it’s the focus of my entire professional output), as it has so many definitions that it has become almost meaningless. Second place is reserved for “humane” when applied to livestock systems as a marketing term.

Raising animals humanely is an excellent concept; indeed it’s so important that it is already a key focus of the entire beef industry, not simply a niche market of accredited suppliers. National programs such as Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) exist to demonstrate to consumers that cattle are managed correctly. Indeed, recent surveys show that although the majority of large producers are familiar with BQA, even those that aren’t consider the various management practices involved to be important. When I asked a rancher friend how he defined “humanely-raised animals”, he emailed back with:

“To me, humanely-raised animals are provided adequate, balanced nutrition, water, veterinary care and shelter from extreme weather.”

So, we’re all on the same page…right?

Apparently not. In apparent despair at the “self-regulation” performed by the beef industry, Bon Appetit have announced that they will only buy “humanely-raised” meat; sourcing all their loose ground beef and beef patties from suppliers who meet strict animal welfare standards. So who’s defining “humanely-raised” for Bon Appetit? Four independent animal welfare organizations: Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Food Alliance (FA, my abbreviation), Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC, my abbreviation) and Global Animal Partnership (GAP). Bon Appetit’s CEO Fedele Bauccio is cited as wanting to change conventional and/or large-scale beef production practices, yet representatives from conventional beef production are missing from the Board of Directors of all four organizations. Instead, Bon Appetit has a seat on the board of both FA and HFAC, and both GAP and HFAC have representatives from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on their boards*.

Without wanting to elevate the omnipotent fear of circling black helicopters still further, independent is an interesting descriptor for these groups as none of them could be considered agenda-free with regards to conventional beef production. Their management standards** certainly lead to some interesting welfare considerations. For example, producers on stage 5 of GAP’s program for beef must not castrate, disbud or brand their animals. I imagine the presumed welfare advantages of not performing these physical alterations will be of great comfort to those trying to corral intact, horned 1,300 lb bulls if they escape from their pasture onto the road. Feedlots are prohibited by AWA’s standards – indeed, AWA are such a friend of conventional production that they even find time to try to debunk the science regarding corn-fed and grass-fed beef production with “we all know…” claims.

Perhaps most alarming are the various attitudes towards pharmaceutical products. AWA states that homeopathic, herbal or other non-antibiotic alternatives are preferred for the treatment of disease, although with the caveat that should they not prove effective, antibiotics may be used. If effective non-antibiotic treatments existed, given the tight margins in beef production, wouldn’t we already be using them? Furthermore, for how long should we try and treat a dehydrated, diarrhea-coated, coccidiosis-infected calf with fairy dust and rainbows before we use an anticoccidial drug? FA states that an animal cannot be sold under the accreditation program if it has received antibiotics within 100 days of slaughter (farewell accreditation premium!) and GAP prohibits therapeutic use of antibiotics, ionophores, or sulfa drugs for market animals. If disease occurs, the producer is economically penalized either way – by removing the animal from the program or by having an untreated sick animal picked out by the buyer. It appears that philosophical ideals and marketing hyperbole may triumph over management practices that are humane by any standards – providing appropriate, effective care to a sick animal.

If Bon Appetit’s aim is to change (improve?) practices throughout the beef industry, the logical strategy would be to listen to and work directly with the farmers and ranchers who produce the majority of the nation’s beef, by interacting with the check-off programs. By catering to production systems that prohibit management practices that enable us to raise safe, affordable, environmentally-sustainable beef, and discourage effective veterinary treatment of sick animals, “humane raising” is anything but.

*Animal Welfare Approved BoardCertified Humane Board; Food Alliance Board; Global Animal Partnership Board 

**Animal Welfare Approved StandardsCertified Humane Standards; Food Alliance Standards; Global Animal Partnership Standards

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8 thoughts on ““Humane” Becomes Synonymous with Agenda-Driven Marketing

  1. This is where I struggle with the term “compromise”. These companies demand things that they really have no clue what they are demanding. We as farmers and ranchers know we produce safe & humanely raised food and it’s efficient and based in science. So is it really “compromise” if we push our system to the way side to meet their demand that is based in emotion. I guess I get confused by it all because I foresee a slippery slope.

    • I agree. It’s hard to sell a concept based on science when the other side is selling based on emotion and philosophical ideals of what is “right”. Ultimately I find it difficult to believe that it’s about cattle welfare at all, instead appears to be about gaining market share and been seen to be a “better” choice than another companies who source conventional beef. A few years ago I had the opportunity to ask Bon Appetit’s CEO why he was removing a technology (rbST) from their supply chain given the demonstrable advantages it had in reducing resource use and environmental impact. He was literally flummoxed and stammered that he wasn’t up to speed with the science. It’s very easy for an executive far removed from food production to make supply chain decisions based on what they’ve read in the Huffington Post. It’s much more difficult to estimate the LNG-term effects of those decisions on food production.

  2. ” …must not castrate, disbud or brand their animals”
    To meet this standard without having to deal with cattlemen having to become professional bull wranglers, I think they might need to consider marketing veal.. I am sure that was thier intention ;)

    • Veal? The evil white meat? Surely not… I should be less sarcastic. You might well be right though – veal market is so small that it would effectively put most producers out of business if we didn’t move towards a more Mediterranean diet.

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  5. ” …must not castrate, disbud or brand their animals”… SERIOUSLY???!!! Have these people ever been around one bull, let alone a pen full of 1100-1400 pound uncut hormonally-amped bovine male-flesh (oh, that is non-disbudded!! Meaning that have horns still!!) And without brands (cuz, presumably branding is also cruel!) Making round up times really interesting, considering nobody knows whose bulls are whose! Wow!!! What a bunch of clueless f’in ‘tards…

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