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Interview with Director of Animal Welfare – Johnsonville – Ben Peyer

Below is the first of a 3-part series of interviews with Ben Peyer, Director of Animal Welfare at Johnsonville, the parent company of SSR. We’ll explore the significance of animal welfare within our industry, highlighting its importance, and providing examples of our ongoing efforts to enhance it while sharing valuable insights with others.


Q: How do you define animal welfare?

A: An animal’s welfare is that animal’s subjective experience in the world.  A negative subjective experience is a fancy way of saying suffering; positive subjective experience is contentment or joy.  It’s about how animals feel, that’s it.

My job is to lead Johnsonville’s animal welfare program.  This means making sure that every Johnsonville member treats animals with compassion and respect at every opportunity, but we have other tools as well.  We have considerable direct influence over welfare during transport and back on the farm.  Finally, we’ve put ourselves in a position to help researchers and industry-wide groups understand emerging issues in the pork industry.  Our work encompasses a wide scope, but we prioritize efforts and influence in areas that enhance animals’ subjective well-being to the fullest extent possible. For us too it’s about how animals feel.


Q: Why is animal welfare an important issue?

A: The reason animal welfare is an issue at all is because animals suffer, and some sorts of animals – farm animals and lab animals included – suffer at a large scale.  One way of distinguishing modern industrial agriculture from animal-centric agriculture is the use of technologies that allow farms to increase their productive efficiency in ways that don’t improve the well-being of their animals.  Most farm animal suffering isn’t the result of cruelty, rather, it is the sad but entirely predictable outcome of a process driven by productive efficiency.

Why animal welfare is an important issue is different for every person and every organization, and the same person might have a different answer depending on the context in which they find themselves.  In nearly every case, however, the reason to care for and about animals is both personal conviction and good business.

When I argue that a certain animal-care initiative is a good idea from a business perspective, my driving motivation is how the animals feel, while the business impact is (if I’ve done my job well) an effective lever for getting the right things done.  If the person I’m working with sees better animal care as a happy byproduct of a profitable business decision, that’s fine by me; more often, the person I’m working with is eager to implement any idea that makes things better.  There are no bad reasons to decrease suffering and increase contentment and joy.


Q: Is animal welfare the same as animal rights?

A: No. Farm animal rights are today not a topic of much conversation.  Organizations that work on animal rights, like Nonhuman Rights Project, argue that primates, elephants, and cetaceans (whales and dolphins) legally recognized as having “such fundamental rights as bodily liberty and bodily integrity”.  Animal rights are one specific way that some advocates are working to achieve better animal welfare, but not in the context of farm animals or protecting farm animals.


Q: Why should “regular people” care about animal welfare?

A: Regular people do care about animal welfare, so I don’t think I need to make the case that they should.  The problem isn’t getting people to care about animals, rather, it’s getting people to act as if they care.  Most often, people don’t know how their choices are impacting individual animals, and don’t know which choices would be better.  So, to reframe the question (and provide an answer): “regular people” should act in a way that improves animals’ lives because doing anything else is entirely inconsistent with their actual sets of values.


Q: How can I get more involved in animal welfare on a local level?

A: I’m going to suggest everybody starts at a hyper-local level, that is, inside their own skulls.  Step one: decide for good that all animals are within the scope of our moral concern.  It matters how animals feel.  Step two: recognize that the choice of what we eat is an act of civic participation.  It is essentially a vote in favor of a certain type of food system.  Once we’ve accomplished these two hyper-local tasks, the rest will fall into place.

Because every company is different, I suggest doing some research into how different organizations approach the topic of animal welfare to help inform your choices.  You can do this research at home (by finding information like this) or at the grocery store by paying close attention to labels.  The easiest in-store choice will be to only purchase eggs that have a third-party welfare assurance label (Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved are meaningful standards); better eggs are widely available and still a great value, and this “vote” will decrease the amount of suffering in the world.

The next way to get more involved is to befriend a farmer!  Your local farmer’s market has been, until this year, a great place to find people who have made it their life’s work to raise animals with respect, compassion, and gratitude.  Farmers who are truly connected to their animals need people who care about animal well-being to be able to do their good work; those of us who are not farmers need somebody to grow our food in a way that is consistent with our values.

We don’t need to let COVID19-related restrictions on things like farmer’s markets stop us, either. “A Greener World,” which is the organization that administers the “Animal Welfare Approved” standards, has a handy tool to help find products from farms that have passed their accreditation audit.  The executive director, Andrew Gunther, is a farmer and welfarist who thinks clearly and deeply about the central part that farmers play in improving animal welfare for farm animals.


[In Part II of our Q&A, we’ll talk further with Ben about farm animals and pose the question, does raising animals for food go against animal welfare?]


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