BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Livestock producers should to take the driver’s seat in delivering their message to consumers rather than allow activists to control the conversation.

“You are the expert. Drive the train. Stop letting the activists paint the picture for animal agriculture,” Janeen Salak-Johnson, University of Illinois animal scientist, said at the Illinois Agricultural Legislative Roundtable.

“We have to feed the world. This is a global issue. This is not a local issue.”

Over the past 18 months, Salak-Johnson said that her speaking engagements have changed from an audience of scientific peers to retailers, processors and others in the food industry as they seek answers to animal production practices.

“First and foremost, most producers that raise animals are morally and ethically obligated to provide for the physical and the mental needs of these animals,” she said.

“My No. 1 objective is to improve animal well-being, meaning I want to improve the health, performance and productivity of these animals so that by the time they get to the consumers’ table that we have safe, affordable food. But while the animals are in our care, we’re doing the right thing.

“Essentially, within our obligations, we must address all aspects of animal well-being. We have to provide responsible care, proper nutrition, disease prevention and treatment, humane handling and euthanasia. We also have to provide shelter, proper housing and management.

“And right now those aspects — euthanasia, proper housing and management — are the aspects of animal well-being that are under scrutiny and being attacked.”

Salak-Johnson’s research efforts include finding ways to improve animal production.

“Can we do better? Absolutely we can do better, but how can we do better?” she said. “We need to make sure that if we make a change, it improves the well-being of the animal, and as a scientist, I actually measure animal well-being using multiple disciplines — health and productivity, behavior, physiological responses.

“I know the bottom line is the dollar for most producers, but in order to have that bottom line, you have to have a healthy and productive animal.”

Salak-Johnson said the issues raised by activists really isn’t about animal well-being in a one-size-does-not-fit-all world.

“I would challenge you that it’s really not about animal well-being. If it was, and let’s use sow housing as an example, if animal welfare issues are about our moral obligations to insuring animal well-being and providing proper care and doing the right thing, then why are we letting the activists, why are we letting those savvy market forces, those that are the decision to say, ‘we’ll provide you crate-free sows,’” she said.

“I will challenge those people that if they put a label that says they are crate-free sows, they can’t say that. There is no such thing a as a crate-free sow.”

McDonald’s, in conjunction with the Humane Society of the United States, announced a year ago that they wanted sows out of gestation stalls.

“After that, the dominos began to fall,” Salak-Johnson said.

“About three months after that, I was at a meeting and many people came up to me and said, ‘I’ve never seen the science.’ My question to them was: Why did you make this announcement? They said, ‘Well, we didn’t know that.’

“Well, they made the announcement because they weren’t informed. They made the announcement because they were trying to save the brand. The dominos kept falling.”

This past summer, Salak-Johnson visited a commercial farm in Minnesota that had been the subject of an undercover video.

“There were no welfare violations on that undercover video,” she said. “I was asked to do an on-farm animal welfare audit for that particular farm, and at the end of the day what I concluded was those producers were fulfilling their obligations.

“They were in the highest state of being, and from a productivity standpoint, they were weaning 32 piglets per sow. I believe it is unethical for their retailers to tell them to change their production system.”

Activist groups have been extremely successful at portraying livestock production as cruel and abusive, swaying the public into having a negative perception.

“When they show these undercover videos, it’s not about the system. If there is any abuse or cruelty, it’s the people — it’s not the system,” Salak-Johnson said. “Many issues are at the forefront. Many of these retailers have said they’re done with gestation and let’s move on to other issues that might be ready to hit us.

“There isn’t a next issue. There is already a continuum. Every time there is a sow housing undercover video, what do they show on that video besides mistreatment of animals? They show production practices, castration, tail docking, euthanasia, blunt-force trauma, etc.

“Many of those do have welfare issues related to them. They’re clear. The welfare issues with the gestation stalls are not clear, but the picture they’re painting is with all these other production practices that they like to videotape in the undercover videos.

“They’re trying to send a message that if you get rid of the gestation stalls, castration goes away, tail docking goes way and euthanasia goes away. Those don’t go away. You don’t do those because a sow was raised in a gestation stall.

“If this issue is about well-being and that’s what is driving this issue to change, then this would be unacceptable.”

Salak-Johnson showed photos of sows under stress and injured by other sows while in group housing.

“They’ve simply been taken out of gestation stalls and put into group pens. A sow that is too fat has welfare concerns. A sow that is too thin has welfare concerns. Even though sows have to fight to establish social hierarchy, too much aggression is a welfare issue,” she said. “That group not stabilizing is a welfare issue. A sow having her vulva bitten is a welfare issue.

“If animal well-being and our ethical obligations are driving change, then it would not be ‘stalls are bad and abusive and pens are good, so let’s eliminate all of our stalls and move all of our sows into pens and all the bad things go away.’

“If it is about well-being, then our goal should be that housing systems regardless of whether it’s a gestation stall or a group pen, those that have been tweaked or optimized that truly improve animal well-being because I will challenge many out there.

“Yes, a group housing system will work, but have you improved well-being? Is your performance and productivity, is the health of your sow better then it was in the previous housing system?

“If we’re providing the right care and incorporating good husbandry practices and ensuring a high state of wellness, then that should be acceptable. If we minimize the negative effects on any particular system and we improve the adaptability of the sow within that environment, then it should be acceptable.”

Any changes in the production system should be based on a practice that improves animal well-being and sustain animal agriculture, Salak-Johnson said.

One way to achieve that is to apply animal welfare principles established by groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association or the National Pork Board’s Pork Quality Assurance Plus.

“They can’t mandate you to have that, but it should be your responsibility to at least have those as your minimal animal welfare guidelines,” Salak-Johnson said.

“Many of these guidelines and principals are encompassed in the Five Freedoms, meaning provide food, water, shelter, protection, prevent them from unnecessary suffering. In a group pen, where sows are getting their vulvas bitten, is not within the guidelines of the Five Freedoms.

“But these decisions regarding animal care and welfare should be made based on a balance between scientific knowledge, professional judgment, and we must consider the ethical and societal values, as well. That’s a little difficult, but we have to — it’s come to that.

“We must continuously evaluate, refine or replace things that don’t work — whether it’s a housing system or whether it’s a management practice or something else, we have to be willing to find something that’s better.”

Research has shown that one size does not fit all.

“We’re asking animals to adapt to the environment we put them in, and we have to look at both short-term and long-term consequences,” Salak-Johnson said. “When I look over at the group housing movement in the European Union, one of the things that was most surprising to me was, yes, they had 92 percent farrowing rates in group pens, but they only had second parity sows.

“I never saw anything beyond second parity. To me, that’s a long-term consequence. Something is happening. That system is not optimized.

“And it’s very complex. We can’t simply take the gestation stall and form a group pen. There are many other things to consider like management, environment, the type of sow we have. There are some lines that are lean that they won’t do very well in a group pen.

“Science lets us determine cause and effect and consequences and solution. This allows me to do it based on the wants and the needs of the sows, as well as our obligation.”