Livestock producers can earn public support by understanding consumer needs and perceptions, says a leader in Manitoba’s animal welfare community.
Veterinarian Allan Preston, an assistant deputy minister in the province’s agricultural ministry, shared his insight with members of Alberta Farm Animal Care at their annual conference, held recently in Red Deer.
Warning that his comments would “undoubtedly” step on a few toes, Preston stated that, as a friend of the industry, he is bound to tell its people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.
“We do need to embrace this changing face of animal welfare and the human concern. We don’t need to fear it and we certainly would be sadly mistaken if we ignore it.
“Our sectors are consumer-driven, consumers being more vocal in speaking with their food dollar, seeking — demanding — products that are raised humanely, transported humanely and slaughtered humanely. The problem is, for us, that this playing field is not static. It changes every day,” said Preston.
Scientific arguments don’t wash with people who get their information from pressure groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, he said.
Rather, the livestock industry has to work hard at giving the people what they want and raising it the way they want to see it raised.
Producers who have been able to stay ahead of the curve and profit from changes in consumer demands are those who are most closely connected with the people who buy the meat, dairy products and eggs that come from the animals they raise, said Preston.
He cited a number of farming operations that have brought consumers into the loop, including Bles-Wold Dairy at Lacombe. Bles-Wold uses milk from its own cows to make yogurt in an on-farm plant and then markets the product through grocery stores throughout Alberta.
Alberta Pork executive director Darcy Fitzgerald, in response to Preston’s comments, said there is a larger player standing in the middle of the production chain.
A large part of what happens on the farms and what goes on the shelves is dictated by the retail industry, which also earns the highest profits, said Fitzgerald.
“You can do all these things . . . but the consumer and the supplier sometimes don’t get to actually talk together. There’s somebody in between, or a few guys in between, who really dictate what the consumer will really get and what the producer will get shafted on,” he said.
Preston responded that the key is to develop direct connections between producers and consumers.