Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0508 PD: Protect your freedom to operate

Charlie Arnot Published on 20 March 2008

Within hours of media reports on mistreatment of “downer” dairy cows at a California packing plant, schools in 36 states had temporarily pulled ground beef from lunch menus.

Television news broadcast disturbing undercover video to millions of Americans creating doubt about the safety of the food they eat and casting a negative light on an entire industry.



The animal activist group responsible for obtaining the video used the incident to call for standards for producers who sell food to federal government programs and new regulations on the slaughter of non-ambulatory animals.

Livestock producers in the United States are under pressure of unprecedented proportions. Food is one of life’s necessities and producing it for the 99 percent of the population who cannot produce it on their own is a noble pursuit. But doing so efficiently and profitably depends on the public’s acceptance of day-to-day production practices.

Freedom to operate, or the ability to run livestock operations with minimal formalized restrictions such as legislation and regulation, depends largely on securing “social license” from stakeholders, including customers, neighbors, local community leaders, regulators and others. Producers must earn and maintain public trust by demonstrating that production practices are consistent with societal expectations and the values of the community in which they operate.

In the past, producers have attempted to provide public assurance by pointing to the scientifically proven methods utilized by the modern livestock industry. Such assurances increasingly ring hollow with a public that has its own vision of how farm animals should be treated. Scientific verification is critical to our long-term success, but science alone is not sufficient to earn and maintain social license.

Research shows non-governmental organizations (NGOs) enjoy the highest level of public trust – higher than business, government or the media. In this era of the Internet, people can readily find the information they seek and NGOs can dispatch communications campaigns with the click of a button.


Groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and PETA have discovered the effectiveness of attacking the production practices they find objectionable at the closest link to consumers. In today’s system in which the top ten food retailers in the U.S. sell more than 75 percent of the food, it is much easier for groups to apply pressure to branded food companies that, in turn, issue mandates on livestock production practices.

Such pressure leads grocery store chains to announce they will transition away from milk from cows treated with rBST and fast food restaurants to announce they will increase purchases of “crate-free” chicken and pork.

Today’s consumers don’t understand contemporary livestock production. What they do understand is that this is not the way they remember farm animals being raised. In a society that spends less than 10 percent of its disposable income on groceries, people can demand that their food be produced in a socially responsible manner. In a recent speech to management, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said, “Our customers want products that make them feel good about their purchases. They also want products that are made in a way that is consistent with their own personal values.”

A recent survey commissioned by the Center for Food Integrity shows consumers hold farmers and producers primarily responsible for the humane treatment of farm animals, yet have only moderate trust in their ability to do a good job and act in a manner consistent with consumer values and ethics. This is not driven by vegetarianism. Sixty- three percent of respondents strongly agreed that if farm animals were treated decently and humanely, they would have no problem consuming meat, milk and eggs.

Scientific arguments in defense of modern production practices are important but they are only one part of the equation that wins public trust. Consumers want to know that producers share their ethic for appropriate farm animal treatment.

The recently announced National Dairy Animal Well-Being Initiative (NDAWI) is a good example of how an agricultural sector can align itself in the effort to protect consumer trust. It is not another on-farm animal welfare program. Rather, it is a set of principles and guidelines that can provide validation to the various welfare programs that already exist and help the industry demonstrate its commitment to animal well-being across the country.


The initiative has already been endorsed by co-ops representing more than 25,000 farms and more than 104.1 billion pounds of milk marketed annually. This represents approximately 57 percent of the milk marketed in the United States each year.

The NDAWI needs producer input into the process. The coalition needs producers to review and comment on the proposed principles and guidelines before the final review of the coalition in June. More can be learned at Take the time to review them and offer your insight.

The livestock industry must give consumers, policymakers and community leaders reason to believe that modern animal agriculture is consistent with their values and expectations. Livestock producers need to build an ethical foundation for their production practices and engage in value-based communication in order to build the trust that protects freedom to operate. PD

Charlie Arnot