For quite some time, the US Dept. of Agriculture has been championing the idea of expanding local agriculture and agri-business. USDA is encouraging the use and consumption of local and regional foods. Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan recently announced awarding of grants to encourage consumption of local foods, including meat and poultry, in the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

Such a policy is helpful to both big and small food companies. The policy and encouragement gives small meat and poultry processors a better shot locally. Large food processors, including America’s meat packers and poultry producers, continue to market their products all over the country and the world. Everyone gets their chance to produce and sell products, and depending on the size of the processors, they cater to their areas of strength.

But a recent case in Vermont would put a damper on this, thanks to animal-welfare activists. Green Mountain College, a rural, agricultural college in Poultney, Vt., recently euthanized one of its farm oxen and processed the animal for food served at the college dining hall. This raised the ire animal-rights activists. The 11-year-old ox, named Lou, was put to sleep after an injury to his hind leg deteriorated. This ox and another one named Bill (pictured) were retired this past summer from the college’s working farm. The plan had always been to turn the animals into beef products to be served in the college dining hall.

This is nothing new for the college. It has done the same previously with other college farm animals, in keeping with the school’s support of local and sustainable agriculture. But this time, the decision was criticized by animal-rights activists, who said the oxen should go to a sanctuary instead. In a statement, the college said it decided to put down the ox after conferring with veterinarians.

Green Mountain College said, “The arrival of cold temperatures and icy conditions are certain to increase his suffering, and we have concurred with our veterinarians’ judgment it was not humane for him to suffer further.” The college also said publicly that the other ox, Bill, would not be sent to a sanctuary either. Instead, the animal would remain at the college farm and receive veterinary care consistent with appropriate livestock practices. Eventually, the second ox would also be slaughtered and turned into meat for the college. After this information came out, animal-rights activists and other critics circulated and signed online petitions. Thousands of emails critical of the college’s decision were sent to the college from all over.

Worse yet, even slaughterhouses located not far from Green Mountain College were threatened, preventing the college at first from finding a place to butcher the animals, officials said.

This case touches on the relationship between ethics and humane treatment of animals. The ethics are on the side of the college, because it believes it will be more humane to euthanize the animals, so they will not suffer, and use them for food, as part of the local and sustainable approach to agriculture being encouraged by USDA.

The activists, who probably oppose the idea of anyone eating meat at all, would prefer the animals to go to a sanctuary, even though the veterinarians believe that would make them suffer inhumanely. No doubt, the activists have taken this stand to gain publicity and make agriculture and the meat industry look bad.

The incident also points to the increasing ignorance about how food is produced in this country. While only about 2 percent of Americans are actively involved in agriculture or agri-business, this ignorance about “where our food really comes from” seems to be growing. The emphasis on local and sustainable agriculture is a good step, but the industry must do even more to abate continuing attempts by animal-rights activists to hurt the US meat and poultry industry.

Bernard Shire is a contributing editor based in Lancaster, Pa. Shire also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.