I came to a revelation recently that troubles me. Twenty years ago, my wife would have warned anyone to avoid the subject of animal-rights groups unless they wanted to get me very irate. And I mean very irate.

Over time, I realized these radical groups are here to stay and I learned to be more tolerant. I still believe they are misguided and distort the truth to an unsuspecting, unknowing public so they can bilk these people out of money.

However, I recently caught myself thinking that these groups have finally done something worthwhile — something that needed to be done. And it's our fault that it needed to be done.

A video wakeup

The dairy cow fiasco at the Hallmark beef packing plant in Chino, CA, is what brought me to this point. I heard about the video and thought that this was just another radical group making something out of nothing. Then I actually saw the video and was grateful that someone had exposed the atrocious behavior so that it could be stopped. That's when I realized I was actually thinking positive thoughts about a radical animal rights group!

The packing plant and its employees are not the only ones with whom we should take issue. The people who sent those animals to the plant should also take some of the heat.

On more than one occasion, the question has been asked as to why these issues frequently seem to involve cull dairy cows. This isn't to say that the beef cattle side of the industry doesn't have its issues, but it does seem that cull dairy cows are an over-represented source of black eyes for the beef industry.

Since our society has moved so far away from knowing how its food is produced, the average American consumer has come to believe all cows have black and white spots. Television commercials show fat, sassy Holstein cows parachuting into a football stadium urging consumers to “eat mor chikin” or munching grass on a pleasant California hillside because the best cheese comes from “happy cows.”

Then the public sees these same cows' sisters being handled as they were in the now-infamous video.

But animal abuse isn't the only issue here. We're also talking about downer animals that should not have been considered for the food chain. Because of this exposure, the USDA and its surveillance practices were called into question, historically large meat recalls have been ordered and criminal charges have been brought.

Long-term repercussions

The cost of this black eye to the industry remains to be seen. Not only is consumer confidence shaken, I believe there will be long-term repercussions. Animal-rights groups have gained another foothold and are using it to advance their ultimate cause, which is to end animal agriculture.

When these groups first garnered attention years ago, they were very aggressive and, in some cases, militant. Now, they've taken a considerably different approach and are working from the consumer back to the producer.

They've convinced some restaurants and grocery stores to purchase meats only from sources that have agreed to a strict set of livestock-handling practices. Frankly, these practices are not unreasonable and, in general, should be followed. But I'm afraid this is the shape of things to come.

If we look at the natural and organic meats industries, I think we can see a pattern that will become more mainstream. The consumers of these meats often want to be assured that the livestock are well cared for. In order to provide this assurance, segments of the natural and organic production chain must submit to audits on animal care and facility maintenance.

I think it's fairly inevitable that this type of check-and-balance will also occur in the raising of conventional beef. Producers who refuse to allow these audits will lose a tremendous portion of their marketing opportunities.

We need to be our own watchdog. Beef and dairy producers alike need to critically evaluate cull animals in order to prevent cattle unfit for slaughter from even being hauled to a packing facility.

If we do this, there won't be any reason for the packing-facility employees to feel the need to resort to the measures seen in the news. We then can make our own decisions about animal welfare instead of allowing radical groups to take credit for “forcing” us into practices we know we should be doing on our own.

Dave Sjeklocha is a feedlot consulting veterinarian at the Haskell County Animal Hospital in Sublette, KS. Contact him at 620-675-8180.