In response to questions about trends, opportunities and challenges concerning the future for our beef industry, feedlot owners and veterinarians often mention matters like food safety, prudent use of antimicrobials, animal welfare and environmental stewardship. In effect, they are talking about the industry’s ability to secure its social licence to operate.
The economic, social and political environment around agriculture has changed. Today consumers influence the landscape of beef production in ways never before recognized. Televised examples of animal abuse in all sectors — as rare as they are — quickly become national spectacles that force industries to change. National policy on handling downer cows in the meat-processing sector, the use of cages in the layer industry, and farrowing stalls in pork production all serve as examples.
Consumers and the public call for transparency in how food-producing animals are cared for; the industry responded with Codes of Practice in all sectors. Consumer eating preferences provided the licence for national chains to promote products they sell that sometimes run against the current of traditional production practices — the A&W “no hormone and steroid campaign” is a case in point. Producers grow more tolerant of labels like “natural,” “no hormone,” “organic” as individuals develop niche markets for products they sell. The preoccupation with producing beef efficiently for profit at all costs is shifting from what we believe as individual producer or veterinarian to what we represent as an industry.
The concept of social licences started with the mining industry. Stakeholders grant social licences based on the credibility and relationships companies develop within communities and when their own values and those of a company/industry are aligned.
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For the beef industry and other segments of food-animal agriculture, social licence is rooted in beliefs and opinions held by the public, particularly consumers. They include both people familiar with how beef is produced and those with little understanding beyond seeing beef as a food item in stores.
A social licence should never be considered permanent because beliefs and opinions change with new information. Announcements of major meat recalls and plant closures as occurred in 2012 at XL Packers in Brooks over beef contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, or in 2008 when listeria was found in processed meats produced at Maple Leaf Food’s Bartor Road facility in North York have lasting effects. When food safety is compromised, public dispersion is cast widely — at producers, at processors and government inspection systems. Food safety is sacred and nothing causes the community to question agriculture more acutely than situations where food safety is at stake, especially if people die. Social licences are very tentative. They are hard to earn, and even more difficult to maintain.
Ryder Lee, manager of federal provincial relations, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, talked about the “next steps” for Canada’s Code of Practice for Beef Cattle at the 2014 University of Calgary Beef Cattle Conference. Although Ryder’s comments were primarily about the cow-calf sector, subjects discussed had application for everybody associated with beef production and are applicable to the beef industry moving toward obtaining its social licence to operate in the future.
The first step in acquiring social legitimacy is for the beef industry to understand the norms of the community (consumers and public). Today’s so-called “rules of the game” have changed. Ryder’s presentation covered topics liked veterinary-client relationships, pain management, snow as a water source and euthanasia. The expectation of many beef consumers will be that husbandry practices must change as a prerequisite to issuing a social licence. How many know that snow is considered a water source for beef cattle on range where it’s appropriate? How many in the community know that pain management in cattle is just nicely on the table and how industry expectations are about to change regarding hot iron branding, dehorning and castration, especially in older animals. Mounting expectations about animal welfare have already changed the industry’s approach to transportation and making end-of-life decisions for compromised livestock. Ryder’s instructions for end-of-life plans: “Have ’em, use ’em.”
Next in the chain of earning a social licence is credibility. The capacity to be credible is largely created by consistently providing true and clear information. The veterinary profession has been actively engaged in the debate on agriculture’s role in the antimicrobial resistance of bacteria affecting humans. Many researchers, among them veterinarians, have intensively searched for answers to the medical crisis that unfolds every day on surgical and medical wards in hospitals. The medical and veterinary professions talk incessantly about the prudent use of antimicrobials and limiting the use in animals of those drugs deemed important in humans. Regulatory authorities on both sides of the border have taken steps to curtail the use of antimicrobials for purposes of growth promotion. Despite the use of new and powerful antibiotics to prevent respiratory disease in feedlot calves, the industry simply has not advanced sufficiently in reducing overall feedlot mortality. Does credibility lie in doing more to bring healthier calves on to the market by reducing stress, better vaccination programs and a makeover of how they are bought and sold?
The last step in gaining a social licence to operate is trust, the willingness to depend on the actions of another. Trust is integral to high-quality relationships, ones that take both time and effort to create. The beef industry must go there.