Bad incidents can teach us good things… if we’re willing to learn from them. We may believe that the horrific video of animal abuse shot undercover at the Bushway facility in Grand Isle is old news now, but it’s not. In fact, it’s ongoing news and has been the subject of recent congressional testimony reflecting poorly on Vermont’s benign pastoral farming image. For decades, the traditional image of Vermont farming has been defined by Vermont Life and the Cabot Cheese ads on TV in which farm families raise and treat their animals like members of the family, not far from the truth for many family farmers.
Bushway is a “bob calf” slaughter facility. The dire straits imposed on Vermont farmers by an outdated federal milk pricing scheme have made it difficult for Vermont farmers to raise non-productive, newborn male calves, as there is little or no market for them. Bushway transports the calves to slaughter often within a day of their birth and slaughters them for the low-end meat market. Bob calves will soon disappear with the introduction of sexed semen.
As bad as the video on the Humane Society is with its 40,000 views and on Youtube with another 8000, the Vermont Dept of Agriculture acted quickly and forcefully to shut down the plant after inaction by federal regulators. The question is can we learn from this and take the opportunity to — if you will pardon the expression—“make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
The real opportunity lies in a new consumer food consciousness about quality, safety and nutrition and the opportunity to lead in an emerging market spurred by Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” and Eric Schlosser’s book “Fast Food Nation.” The legislature seems caught in a wrangle between current industry interests and their defense of outdated and often un-enforced minimum regulatory standards for humane slaughter and the opportunity to lead Vermont agriculture into the new slow food market for healthy, locally produced food.
Vermonters are already asking questions about where their food comes from, how animals are treated on the farm, in transport and in slaughter. Surveys indicate that many are willing to pay somewhat more for local produce and animals raised and slaughtered humanely. Setting new standards for humane transport and slaughter is already becoming a critical indicator within food systems here and in Europe and a sought after imprimatur on market shelves. It’s yet another opportunity for Vermont to lead, adding value to the Vermont brand as it has in artisan cheese and produce, and to restore the traditional image of Vermont’s working landscape.
The Dept of Agriculture understands the opportunity to lead rather than just comply and has enlisted the help of Temple Grandin, a recognized authority on humane slaughter, who sent a colleague to Vermont to conduct a workshop on the subject. It’s now up to the legislature to support this opportunity to lead and innovate rather than circle the wagons and defend outdated practice by ensuring a broad range of ideas and participation on the livestock advisory council.