January cover strikes sensitive chord with caller.

When I picked up the phone the gentleman on the line immediately launched into a litany of concerns that he had with the cover of our Jan. 15, 2010 edition.

The cover photo portrayed a young man moving pigs from the farrowing crate to the aisle at weaning. The image could be misinterpreted, he argued, and then offered this scenario: “A pork producer is invited to educate a group of elementary students about modern pork production and he/she enters the room carrying the two weaned pigs by their back legs. It would be challenging to explain to the students and teachers that this is a standard operating procedure.”

True enough, but no pork producer I know would do that.

He continued by pointing out that the magazine cover could fall into the hands of school children, urban neighbors or members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who might consider such handling inappropriate.

Yes, of course, the cover may be viewed by non-producers, but it is there that the caller and I see proven pork production and animal care practices a little differently.

What he saw was the possibility that the worker's pig handling might be viewed as inappropriate. I know he knows better, but he seemed unwilling to defend these commonly accepted handling practices.

What I saw when I analyzed the photo for the cover was an employee handling the pigs with minimal stress. I saw a remarkably clean farrowing room after three-plus weeks of use; I saw healthy, robust pigs being weaned. And, I saw a health-conscious employee taking the precaution of wearing a dust mask during this high activity (and slightly dusty) event, a worker who wears latex gloves to provide a better grip on the pigs and ensure they do not slip out of his hands. I did not take the photo, but I was present when it was taken.

Eye of the Beholder

We all choose to see the positives and the negatives in a situation based on our knowledge and past experiences. Could the picture be misinterpreted? Yes, of course, it could. Does that make it a bad practice or a bad choice for a cover? I don't think so.

It does, however, afford anyone in our industry an opportunity to explain how we handle pigs, the management protocols and standard operating procedures we use to ensure their health and safety and eliminate any possibility of mishandling or abuse.

Here's the kicker, the gentleman that called worked in “Community Relations and Recruitment” for a sizable swine production management company.

My point to him was this: If your non-farm support staff, your urban neighbors or a group of elementary students are exposed to the “real world” of pork production and they express concern, but you fail to explain why/how pigs are handled in a certain manner or why a health-conscious worker wears a dust mask, then I would suggest that you are shirking your “community relations” responsibilities.

The Challenge

The animal welfare do-gooders are certainly being effective when people in our industry are so sensitive to “their” opinions that we begin to apologize for our standard, proven handling and care methods instead of explaining and defending them.

Therein lies the real issue and it applies to all of us in the pork industry. If someone walked into your hog operation today — with appropriate permission and an escort — what would he/she see? Would you be able to explain a handling method or a standard operating procedure in terms he/she could understand and accept?

The caller was well-intentioned and I do not take his concerns lightly. Clearly, the animal activist groups led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have no intentions of backing down. This morning I received word that HSUS is gathering signatures in Ohio to put an animal care referendum on the November ballot. The petition drive is their response to the recent vote to create the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board charged with drafting acceptable handling standards for the state's livestock and poultry producers.

There is a delicate balance between placating animal activist group concerns and protecting proven animal care and management practices. It is a balancing act most of us could do without, but it is, nonetheless, one that we must master if we are to continue providing food and fiber to our nation and the world.