An assistant professor and Extension meat specialist at the University of Florida, Chad Carr grew up in Bethpage, Tenn., 30 miles north of Nashville, on a diversified livestock operation that included purebred Hampshire hogs and commercial beef cattle. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science at Oklahoma State University and a Ph.D. in animal science at the University of Missouri, where his primary research focus was improving fresh meat quality. Chad and his wife, Cathy, and daughter, Ella, live in Micanopy. His duties at UF include undergraduate teaching within the Department of Animal Sciences and coordinating food safety trainings for meat and poultry processors within the state. Additionally, Chad works to provide educational programs in meat and livestock evaluation to youth, niche marketing strategies to livestock producers and meat processors, as well as meat quality training to Florida’s extensive food service industry.
Two of our country’s leading experts in animal welfare have discussed the need for transparency in animal agriculture. According to Dr. Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University and renowned author and consultant, the meat industry should “put cameras in their facilities and stream it out to a tour website.”
According to Dr. Don Lay, animal welfare research leader with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, one of our greatest challenges in animal agriculture is “the disconnect between how the public views animal agriculture and how scientists and producers view it.” He went on to state that this leads to consumer distrust of our industry and that “we need to show exactly what we do, and, if we are scared of showing something, maybe we should rethink how we’re doing it.” (Taking Stock, American Society of Animal Science, 2012).
Dr. Gary Smith, retired Monfort Endowed Chair at Colorado State University, stated it is this lack of trust which leads to consumer confusion and the urge to grasp at nearly any solution, such as the idea to eat all local foods or more radical ideas such as eating only entirely unprocessed foods (2010, Reciprocal Meat Conference).
Many producers within animal agriculture are troubled by the idea of an open-door policy and struggle with where to draw the line relative to transparency and the graphic nature of processing animals for food.
Let’s consider one of our primary consumers. The average teenage American consumer most likely has: A) not considered or doesn’t care about where the meat products they consume come from or B) has either mentally blocked out or possibly does not even realize that an animal must die to produce the meat products they are consuming.
This impressionable young person will likely be confronted with a cascade of images and information pertaining to animal agriculture as they mature into an adult. Many of these images will be accurate portrayals of an industry that I feel shows due diligence to ensure animal welfare and food safety. However, mistakes certainly happen within the industry and we cannot rest on our successes. Additionally, images can be formatted and narration can be written to easily misrepresent events within the meat industry.
This young person could find undercover pictures online of a farm worker abusing an animal or listen to a well educated guest on a daytime television show with an emotionally-charged set of “food values or ethics.”
This young person would very likely be influenced by all of these. He or she would think that the images of the person abusing a farm animal are indicative of the husbandry all US livestock receive rather than the exception. He or she would likely believe every word from this television guest because of the confidence and passion with which he spoke.
According to Dr. Wes Jamison, associate professor of communication at Palm Beach Atlantic University, these images and depictions are likely to “pre-condition” this individual to have at least some level of bias against animal agriculture. On top of exposure to these images, there are four primary underlying social reasons that contribute to someone developing bias against animal agriculture: urbanization, humanization of animals, acceptance of evolutionary theory, and affinity for equal rights among species (Jamison, AVMA Annual Convention, 2004).
Katie Abrams, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, and myself are actively conducting a social science experiment to see if a random population of college students can be “immunized” against some of these sensational images by showing them a video of commercial meat-animal slaughter narrated to explain the science utilized to ensure animal welfare and food safety during the process. Most students within this sample have an urban background with little previous exposure to agriculture and a marginal or poor science background. Before and after watching the video, a survey will be administered to students to gather general demographics and food preferences. The survey will also include questions about their attitudes toward: all animals, food animals, the livestock industry, livestock slaughter, and meat before and after watching the narrated video.
We hope the findings from this research will help determine where the line should be drawn relative to transparency of the slaughter process within the meat industry. It could also help determine if an open-door policy using online video feeds could immunize consumers against the sensationalism depicted by those who have initiatives against animal agriculture.