Undercover video recording on livestock operations is fraught with controversy in and of itself, but nevertheless, these videos are making their way into the public eye-and influencing public opinion on animal agriculture.
That's why the Center for Food Integrity, www.foodintegrity.org, formed the Animal Care Review Panel, a program whose purpose is to provide a balanced analysis of undercover video investigations from outside organizations claiming to have captured animal cruelty in the act on various U.S. farms.
"These videos often showcase scientifically verified animal-handling practices either out of context or as outright inhumane," says Charles Arnot, chief executive officer for the Gladstone, Mo.-based CFI. "It's crucial that the Panel is able to explain these practices for consumers and retailers, underscoring the fact that the vast majority of producers care for their animals using practices that are proven to be most humane for the animals."
The emphasis of the Panel is that it provides an objective evaluation by professionals who are familiar with conventional agricultural practices: a veterinarian, an animal scientist, and an ethicist. Once a new video is confirmed by a livestock commodity group, the Panel has 48 hours to complete the review. Three panelists are selected, each of whom reviews the video on their own before coming together to discuss their evaluations. CFI then synthesizes their evaluation into a report, which is approved by the panelists and released first to the commodity group and then to the targeted farm and public.
"It's important to note that to ensure the integrity of the process, no industry organization has any input into or review of the report," Arnot stresses.
So far, the Panel has reviewed three cases, each of them in the pork industry. What qualifies a video is that it is made public and that it showcases questionable animal-handling practices. While there is concern among livestock producers that providing a public review of these videos condones undercover reporting, Dr. Candace Croney, associate professor of animal behavior and well-being at Purdue University and one of two ethicists available to serve on the Panel, contends that undercover reporting would continue regardless.
"Everybody serving on this panel understands the controversy," she says. "It's a violation of privacy and a biosecurity risk, but while there's so much focus on this, the ag industry is forgetting the importance of what these videos are revealing. As these videos get released, people are discussing them anyway."
The Panel provides the pro-agricultural viewpoint that public discussions often lack. But instead of using emotionally charged tactics to change public opinion, the Panel provides a logical, responsible, and credible evaluation of what is actually going on in the videos, whether it is legitimate abuse or, more likely, a case of best management practices misconstrued.
"Doing so allows for an opportunity for professionals to accurately explain animal-handling practices, rather than allowing non-professionals to explain them inaccurately, or for scientifically verified practices to be depicted as inhumane," Arnot agrees.
He adds: "If the industry instead chose to remain silent, stakeholders could then assume that those cases of true animal mistreatment are considered acceptable, while scientifically verified practices would go unexplained and remain under fire. There are few ways to more quickly lose the public's trust than by remaining silent on such issues."

Bridging producers and consumers
Essentially, the Panel's reviews attempt to close the rift between animal agriculture and a largely uneducated public that yet is deeply interested in how their food is raised. On one hand, the Panel provides a defense of the livestock industry; on the other hand, the Panel provides a source of accountability.
"For those in animal agriculture to maintain public trust, it's important that we're able to openly and transparently show proper animal care," Arnot says. "Operations not caring for animals properly should be held responsible and encouraged to improve."
Kristen Eggerling, a cow-calf producer from Martell, Neb., says that she's glad that CFI is serving a watchdog role and that the Panel consists of people knowledgeable about agriculture. But she is concerned about the integrity of the videos being reviewed.
"The vast, vast majority of producers do the right thing for their animals because it's our livelihood," she says. "Incidents of abuse are very, very rare. But anyone can manipulate videos to focus on what they want through editing and staging."
What's as unnerving is that the animal rights activists who record these undercover videos are engaging in unethical fact-finding practices themselves, Eggerling adds.
"At any point, someone can come here and ask why I do things the way I do on my farm," she says. "That's what animal rights activists should be doing."
But there's a reason why activists have resorted to undercover reporting, Croney says: "To be perfectly honest, if not for some of these videos, we would never know what was happening on some of those farms."

Hot Spots for Animal Rights
There are three areas of animal husbandry that spur most social debates. Here's what Dr. Croney advises producers to do about them:
1. Housing - The big issue here is hygiene. Clean manure out regularly. Provide fresh bedding. Control flies.
2. Animal Handling - It's important to ensure low-stress handling. Incidents generally occur with workers who haven't been trained to work with animals. Provide adequate training and supervision.
3. Accountability - If there is an incident of abuse, there needs to be consequences for the worker, whether that's losing the job or additional training.