As a youngster raising a 4-H beef calf, I only had to worry about what two people thought: Dad, who had some high expectations for my budding livestock career, and the judge at the county fair, who had the final word on the quality of my animal and my skills in rearing it. Today, virtually everybody has a say in how farm animals are raised.
Since the advent of commercial livestock production, the model was pretty simple. Farmers produced meat, milk and eggs and, if they were safe, tasty and affordable, consumers bought them. Today though, many consumers are asking for more. They shop with one eye on the grocery cooler and another on the livestock barn. They’re concerned not only about the quality of their food, but also about the quality of life for food animals.
This isn’t a passing fad. Already some of the nation’s biggest food retailers are requiring farmers to raise their pigs, cattle and chickens in ways their customers deem acceptable. In several states, expensive political battles resulted in new rules for farm animal care. Since the customer is always right, farmers had a choice: Ignore the seismic shift in consumer expectations or play a role in shaping the changing marketplace. Here in Ohio, we chose to participate.
Two years ago, voters created the Ohio Livestock Care Standards Board, making us the first state in the nation to bring farmers and the public together to figure this all out. Since its inception the Care Board has held more than 75 open meetings and seven statewide listening sessions. It has spent countless hours absorbing input from its active website. Its members, who include veterinarians, hunger fighters, animal advocates, food safety experts, consumer spokespersons, educators, family farmers and others, listened to what Ohioans had to say, and then set about sorting through competing wishes and settling on workable solutions. It was no easy task. The rules for livestock care had to not only assure the well-being of the animals but needed to avoid unintended consequences. Poorly thought out rules could run up the price of food, compromise food safety, eliminate jobs, put farmers out of business or even harm the animals that were supposed to be helped.
To their great credit, the board members got it right. They found middle ground among widely conflicting views by balancing what was ideal with what was practical. An extensive set of regulations now describe in detail what is acceptable and what’s not regarding how animals are housed, fed and watered, how they’re moved and transported and how they’re kept healthy. And they spell out how those standards will be enforced. I thank the members of the board for their persistence and patience, and congratulate the thousands of Ohioans who participated in the process. It’s gratifying to see reasonable people reaching reasonable conclusions.
Fifty-some years ago, dad taught me a valuable lesson. I could have what I thought was the perfect calf, fed, exercised and groomed to my highest standards, but if it wasn’t what the judge was looking for, my effort was for naught. The same is true today across the entire food animal chain. If producers and consumers aren’t on the same page, everyone’s going to be disappointed. That’s why we have the Care Board, so we can talk about what we want and agree on what we can do that’s best for consumers, farmers and the food animals that connect us.