March 1, 2018

On January 1, 2019 when I hang up my coveralls and take off my boots for the last time, I plan to sit down and write my next book. The title is going to be “It’s All Smoke and Mirrors”. We live in a world where parents can be jailed for withholding treatment from their children when they are sick and a physician recommends treatment - yet representatives of major poultry companies proudly proclaim on television, in the printed press and on the internet, that their birds receive No Antibiotics Ever.

If a physician determines that a parent is abusive to a child, it is that physician’s obligation to report the occurrence to child services and to the police. Hopefully, action is taken and the parent receives therapy before the child is returned to the home or the child is permanently removed from the home. At one point, I had some hope that we in animal agriculture were going to have a way to deal with animal welfare infractions in a similar fashion. Many years ago, it was proudly announced that the industry was going to start doing animal welfare audits. As the system was explained to me when it was originally conceived, a certified auditor carrying a certified audit instrument was going to visit a complex unannounced. That auditor was going to be given a complete list of growers producing animals for that complex and he or she was going to randomly choose a subset of farms to visit and audit. Finally, I naïvely thought, some of these people/farms that should simply not be allowed to have animals would be identified and be dealt with. Finally, there was going to be a way to document transgressions and deal with some fundamental animal welfare issues that plague these animals 24/7.

And then the smoke and mirrors took over… The auditors visit was not unannounced but rather was scheduled weeks in advance. The list that was presented to the auditor was not a complete list of the farms but rather a carefully selected list of farms. The auditor could choose from the list, but every farm on the list had been groomed so that a high score could be achieved on the audit. The smoke and mirrors was that the exercise was not about identifying and fixing animal welfare issues and improving the quality of life for the animals – it was about obtaining a high score on the audit.

The most egregious incident that I experienced happened to me many years ago. Although we had an appointment to go to the field and visit farms, the grow-out manager, whom I suppose wanted to impress me with his importance, let me sit in the waiting room for over an hour. During that time, I had ample opportunity to read all the certificates and commendations on the wall. Among the documents on the wall were certificates of animal welfare audits proclaiming scores of 95 to 98 out of a possible 100 with statements of excellence in the audits. Finally, the grow-out manager appeared and we went to the field to look at some chickens.

It was while standing in one of the chicken houses that I figured out that it really is all smoke and mirrors. When I asked the manager what kind of lighting program they used on their birds the response was 23 hours of light and 1 hour of darkness – we try to grow them as fast as we can. Being my always politically correct self, I was forced to ask how that was possible because during the time when I was being kept waiting I read multiple certificates stating excellence in animal welfare audits and any audit instrument that I knew of required at least 4 hours of continuous darkness so the animals can rest. The manager very kindly put his arm around my shoulders and said “Doc, you were obviously never a truck driver”. That was a correct statement since I had no idea what he was talking about. He went on to educate me about the fact that I obviously knew nothing about keeping two sets of logs.

It really is all smoke and mirrors. We somehow have convinced ourselves that proudly proclaiming that we will use no antibiotics ever is better than teaching people that even though we do our best to prevent disease – sometimes animals do get sick and disease does need to be treated so that we can preserve the wholesomeness of the products our customers consume. Or we convince ourselves that treatment with a so called natural product that has no proven efficacy or potency is better than products that have been thoroughly researched and evaluated. Or we convince ourselves that keeping two sets of logs so we can demonstrate high scores on animal welfare somehow helps that welfare of the animals we are supposed to be caring for. It’s all smoke and mirrors – Think about it.

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Robert L. Owen, V.M.D., Ph.D.

Director of Technical Service

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