Friday, May 11, 2012

State Fairs, County Fairs, and Dizzy Mice

Update, August 2013:  The Iowa State Fair App focuses on food--deep fat fried anything on a stick. And this site explores many of the activities that make the event the number one tourist attraction in Iowa. The blog below comes from an earlier time--some reflections about attending small county fairs.

Like a Mouse on a Spinning Table

I recently read a thoughtful research paper about animal health, livestock production practices, and food safety. Instead of giving me answers, it raises important questions. My head starts spinning.

We didn’t have animal welfare issues in mind when we were pre-teens at the Hardin County Fair. It was the 1960s, and the livestock on show seemed fairly nonchalant about it all; maybe their handlers were more relaxed and not yet captivated by a “best in show” frame of mind. 

We didn’t wonder what was in the hot dogs we purchased at a grungy stall next to the tilt-a-whirl.  We knew it wasn’t prime rib.  The cotton candy resembled pink attic insulation, and a drink called Green River helped us maintain a sugar high. 

It was a small county fair, so for entertainment, we watched the “dizzy mouse” game of chance.  The carnie would spin a table with color-coded holes lining the outer rim.  Bets were laid, and she would place a mouse in the middle.  After a certain amount of “drunk stumbling,” the mouse would crawl into a hole, and that color would designate the winners. I was not allowed to wager, but I was captivated with the mouse’s behavior.  I’d seen too many marauding mice and rats in our corn cribs on the farm to be much of a rodent fan, but the mouse seemed in a perpetual state of fear and confusion.  
  
I grew up where dog fighting, cock fighting, and bull fighting are not issues. I also grew up where farmers raise cows, pigs, and chickens for sale and consumption. Most of the farmers treated their animals with respect—sometimes in a business sense, as they know that better animals make more money—sometimes in a compassionate sense as they would tend to sick, young, or special animals in extraordinary ways.  In my youth, we figured farmers would do the right thing. As far as I knew, very few consumers had questions about animal welfare, antibiotic use, or other practices. 

For many reasons, those days are gone. Consumers and policymakers now ask more questions. That’s a good thing, but as the opinions and comments fly, slanted views, company ads, and interest group ideology can sway the debate before the facts can be weighed.  And sometimes even the facts seem “unweighable.”  

A widely quoted commentary from CAST, The Direct Relationship between Animal Health and Food Safety Outcomes, examines possible changes with livestock production practices (confinement conditions, antibiotics, outdoor housing), and it cautions about the potential effects these might have on food safety. With six respected authors from multiple backgrounds and a team of peer reviewers, the paper is factual and credible. Not everyone will agree with the findings, but the authors raise questions, provoke thought, and most importantly advocate for further research.

Ag issues sometimes get fuzzy in the media barrage. A person can feel like a dizzy mouse on a spinning table. I hope producers, policymakers, and the public take the time to study a variety of credible sources.
by dan gogerty, photo from flickrhivemind.net and www.debperryphotography.com

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