Sent to destroy a nine-headed serpent that had been wreaking havoc on the town of Lerna, Hercules discovered to his dismay that every time he smashed one of its heads, two more would grow in its place.
Hercules was fortunate to have the help of his nephew, Iolaus, who cauterized each head as he smashed it, enabling the hero of Greek legend to destroy the Lernean hydra, thus completing the second of his twelve tasks.
North America’s livestock industry has a hydra of its own, with assurances that new heads will keep popping up.
There can be no doubt that the spectre of animal rights activists and the various tactics they employ are here to stay, says hog producer Brent Moen, Chairman of the Western Hog Exchange and president of Verus Swine Management Services.
Moen and fellow members of the WHE team had a Herculean task placed before them in September, when they were contacted by W5, a current affairs TV show, with information that one of their staff was an undercover operative of Mercy For Animals Canada. Over a period of two months, she had taken hours of video at the Red Deer assembly yard, boiling the results down to a number of clips showing WHE staff abusing animals under the watchful eye of a federal inspector.
In one instance, the inspector appears to encourage the abuse.
How the Canadian Food Inspection Agency chose to handle the incident is their business and they have not shared the scope of their action plan with the WHE, Moen said in a presentation to Alberta Pork’s 2014 AGM in Calgary.
After careful study, the WHE’s leaders chose to jump in front of the bus by making a public apology for the actions of their staff, seeking input from independent experts and finding out they could improve and enforce their animal welfare policies.
Moen says he and his group modelled their response after the example set in 2008 by Maple Leaf Foods President Michael McCain. A number of people fell ill or died after eating listeria-infected cold cuts produced in one of his plants.
McCain voluntarily shut down the plant, recalled massive amounts of product and apologized publicly for the tragedy.
It was a master stroke in consumer relations, enabling Maple Leaf to maintain public confidence in its products throughout the ordeal, says Moen.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, it’s how people perceive what you do that’s really going to define your outcome,” he said in his presentation.
“We should have realized it was only a matter of time before (animal rights activists) would come looking for us. It’s only a matter of time before they come looking for you.
“I was told a long time ago, you should always dance like no one is watching. I think, from now on, in our business activities and what we do, we should act like everybody is watching, because they probably are.”
Moen says he realized from the start that he was way over his head. He and his group enlisted the help of a crisis management team and they engaged veterinarian Egan Brockhoff and animal welfare specialist Jennifer Woods to conduct an audit of their facility.
“The general consensus, frankly, was that it could have been worse. I don’t want to minimize that, but honestly, as producers and people that are involved in this industry every day, I think we’re desensitized to what other people see and hear.”
There was minimal response from news media when the initial press release was issued late in September, days before the show was scheduled to air, says Moen. That changed in mid-October, immediately after the broadcast, he says.
Reporters and members of the public swamped him with phone calls and e-mails, showing a wide difference in their perceptions of the realities at WHE.
Moen says WHE learned from the incident that there was a significant difference between the words in its operational manual and the actual practices inside the facility.
Problems started at the farm, moved through transportation system and landed in WHE’s lap, showing a lack of respect for the animals in its care, says Moen.
He polled the room, asking the producers there to think about how many times they had shipped a culled sow or an aging boar that was marginally fit for transport and subsequently went down, sometimes pushing a trucker to take the animal away.
“I’ve witnessed this. The producer will say, well, if you don’t want to take it, I’ll find a trucking company will.”
A culled sow may travel 100 km to the Red Deer yard, but then has another 1,000 km to go after that, adding significantly to its stress, says Moen.
“Ask yourself a simple question: When I load a compromised animal on a truck, would I like to have a picture of myself, my family, beside that animal, with a message saying, yes, I made the decision to ship this to market?
“If you want to have the ostrich approach in life and put your head in the sand, there’s only one piece of your anatomy that’s sticking up in the air, and that’s probably where you’re going to end up getting it,” he said.
Incidents of compromised animals being delivered to the yard will be written up and a note will be sent to the farm from which they were shipped, he says.
He asked for total co-operation from farms because it is critical to the industry.
“As an industry, we need to demand 100 per cent compliance to become 100 per cent responsible.”
Consistent compliance and adherence to Canadian Quality Assurance are critical, he says.
He recommended that producers take advantage of the expertise offered by Jennifer Woods, an international expert based in Blackie, Alta.
Mercy For Animals and other groups will continue to look for targets in the livestock industry, says Moen.  “Their goal is to turn everybody into vegetarians, it’s as simple as that.”
Other experts attending the meeting commented on broader aspects of animal welfare, enforcing the lessons learned at WHE and giving their perspectives on how producers and processors can maintain public confidence in the face of animosity from animal rights groups.
Bonni Clark, a public relations specialist with the Calgary Stampede, discussed how her highly public organization operates under the continued scrutiny and occasional attacks from groups that take issue with the use of animals in entertainment.
Internationally renowned and highly public, the Calgary Stampede must constantly mind how its rodeo and chuckwagon races are perceived by people who are not familiar with the sport, says Clark.
The Calgary Stampede’s position on the bleeding edge of activist targets has put it in a position of taking a leading role in animal care, she says.
Clark keeps in her repertoire a photograph of two women who tied themselves to the rails along the race track, and then sat down behind hand-made signs decrying the chuckwagon races as blood sport that kills horses.  One of the Stampede’s first steps in that instance was to cover the two women with tarps to limit the visuals. Clark then went over to the other side of the field to find out who was using high-powered cameras and who had broadcast capabilities.
“I started taking pictures of them, because they were promising that, not just once, they were going to get all the way through the Stampede.”
She gave her photos of people who seemed especially interested in the incident to Stampede security and the Calgary police.
“We were very low-key about it. We simply said we had a slight delay of the chuckwagon races tonight. We had two people who didn’t want the races to happen and we had 16,000 people who did. We removed them and we went on with the show. They got their moment in the sun, and then they started begging for money for their legal fund.”
Rather than getting caught up in the trenches, the Calgary Stampede has taken a wider view of how they think about animal welfare and how they are perceived by the masses, she says.
“We want to make sure that our voice is heard on par with people that would speak to the issue without actually knowing the facts.”
All incidents are investigated and shared with news media to provide the context and transparency they need to provide their readers and viewers with an accurate picture, says Clark.
The Stampede also has an animal question and answer website to tackle questions people have about the thousands of animals involved in their show, including the rodeo itself as well as other attractions on the grounds.  It provides a checklist to competitor and exhibitor entering its grounds to ensure that they are following all of its recommended protocols for animal care, says Clark.
“We are open and transparent. We will tackle your hardest questions head on, with honesty,” she said.
It’s important to express understanding and offer context to people rather than getting your back up and becoming defensive, she says.
“The other important thing is, let’s lead and don’t fight the issue. You really have to open someone’s heart to get to their mind.”
Next spring, the Stampede will introduce a new program to help producers manage hard questions from people who have seen videos like those shown on W5.
Public relations specialist Terry Fleck, founder and executive of the Missouri-based Centre for Food Integrity, offered his insight into the idea of social licence and the role of livestock producers within that framework.
He advised producers to maintain public trust by doing what’s right.
People explore their environment differently than they did in the 1920s when the term mass media was first coined, says Fleck.   Ninety years later, mass media have been replaced by masses of media, introduced with the development of the Internet and the exponential rise of social media as means of communication.
People now seek information within their own online communities rather than through the mass media of radio, TV and newspapers. Mistrust of institutions is now a social norm, he says.
Agriculture, in telling its own story, has to understand where people are coming from, says Fleck.
He set out seven elements that a Big Food focus group have determined to be core to the notion of being open and transparent.
Motivation,  Disclosure, Discussion, Relevancy, Clarity, Credibility, and Accuracy.
Mercy For Animals and other “save” groups are not going away, says Geraldine Auston, animal care consultant with Ag & Food Exchange (AFX).
The group whose operative shot videos inside the WHE assembly yard at Red Deer has closed its Canadian headquarters, but the operatives themselves remain active, she told producers during her turn at the podium.
“It’s not over. It’s never over,” she said.  In less than two years, they’ve struck at seven different locations.  “It’s a campaign. It’s all about capturing different targets. They’re incredibly successful at it.”
MFA’s video from the Red Deer assembly yard garnered 80,000 signatures and they’re still pushing for more from people who were deeply disturbed by what they saw.
“People do care. They care enough to demonstrate outside your facility. They care enough to invade your office. We need to pay attention. We need to understand that it’s important to be sorry. Like Bonni said, you need to get them in the heart. They need to know it’s important to you.”  Auston said it’s OK to be sorry and it’s OK to admit that something went wrong, because things do go wrong.
She describes animal rights activist as highly effective lobbyists who are also effective in using other means of soliciting public support.  She advises producers and processors to keep doing the right things for the right reasons and to eliminate from their operations anything that they would not want to see on TV.
“Animals rights groups are never going away. It’s how we deal with them that matters,” said Auston.
“I would like to challenge you all to be leaders, because if you’re not leaders, you’re going to be lead – that’s our slippery slope.”
Brent Moen closed his session by stating that the hog industry needs to use all media available to get its story out and counter the messages being sent out by animal rights groups.   •
— By Brenda Kossowan