Oh, what a tangled web they weave: today's animal rights activists challenge the food system's passive stance.
Now try this on for size. An animal rightist is an environmentalist is a food safety activist is a factory farm opponent. The point is they are all the same. The name may cloak a group's agenda, but a similar thread runs through many activists today.
Whether you are a dairy, poultry, pork or beef producer or a packer, retailer or foodservice operator, activists have you in their sights. Their objectives:
* To direct what people purchase and how they live.
* To determine how you run your business (or whether you operate at all).
* To put an end to all animal agriculture and meat production.
* To sustain their non-profit, tax-deductible organization and jobs.
"There are people out there who are trying to change the food-production and sales-tax systems in this country," says Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, a non-profit consumer-advocacy group.
Some of these groups have been around for decades; others are new or the scene. Environmental groups set up shop in the 1960s and 1970s fighting pollution. Animal rights groups took notes, and some personnel, from the environmental movement and built momentum in the 1980s. Today, croosover and interconnectedness among a variety of groups is indeed comparable to a spider's web.
Why are groups joining forces and even switching focus?
* Because the public has ignored the animal rights mandate to stop eating meat. Estimates suggest less than 5 percent of the U.S. population are true vegans.
* Environmental and food safety issues generate more public interest and concern. There's a personal connection between people, food and the environment, because the perception is that "those factors can affect my health."
The activists' goal is to win the hearts and minds of the U.S. public--or at the very least, raise questions in people's minds about your business. "It's a campaign about what people think about you," Berman notes.
Although big wins are important, activists are patient. "It's about incrementally changing public opinion over time," Berman says.
U.S. consumers are divided in their opinions of the safety of their food supply. The CCF conducted a survey in September 2001 asking participants to measure their perception of the safety of the U.S. food supply compared to five years ago. The results: less safe, 30 percent; as safe, 35 percent; more safe, 33 percent; don't know, 2 percent.
Agriculture is especially vulnerable to public opinion, largely because most Americans have a cavernous knowledge gap about food and how it reaches their plates.
Why is public opinion so important in combating activists?
"You're not going to win a court case until you have a jury behind you--and that involves public opinion," Berman says. "If you have public opinion, then you can get the Congress and Senate behind you, and you can get state attorneys general."
But can activists really win? "Yes, unless there's a push back from the other side," Berman contends. "You have to delegitimize them in the consumers' eyes." That task is No. 1 on the CCF's to-do list.
Besides writing op-ed articles for The New York Times, USA Today and other publications, the CCF's most recent endeavor involves a television ad exposing PETA's connection to organized violence. The 30-second spot featured Bruce Freidrich, PETA's campaign director, speaking at a 2001 animal rights convention: "Of course we're going to be, as a movement, blowing things up and smashing windows. It would be great if all the fast-food outlets, slaughterhouses, laboratories and the banks that fund them exploded tomorrow. It's perfectly appropriate for people to take bricks and toss them through windows. Hallelujah to the people who are willing to do it."
Mike Burita, CCF spokesperson, says the TV campaign is meant to "expose PETA's ties to arsonists and domestic terror organizations." He hopes the commercial debunks PETA's reputation as a "warm and cuddly" organization.
Still, the food industry has a long road ahead in terms of countering the activists' many claims. The farm sector in particular has adopted something of a pacifist stance. "If we respond, we'll only draw attention to the negative issue and set our industry up for further attack ..." or so the long-held theory goes.
Agriculture's reaction has been to take the scientific high road. Although there's nothing wrong with science and reason, most of the U.S. public doesn't base their purchasing or consumption decisions on either factor.
"Sound science is a foundation, not a defense, in the battle to protect modern food production," says Karen DeQuasie, a consultant for the Animal Agriculture Alliance.
A chronic challenge facing agriculture is that there's too little manpower, too little commitment and too little funding placed behind combating activists' attacks. But perhaps the most critical downfall is agriculture's lack of cohesiveness. There have been attempts, like the Animal Industry Foundation, which evolved into the Animal Agriculture Alliance in 2001.
Complicating the issue even more is the need for all food system entities to work in unison to address the activists. But, the communication and cooperation track record within the food system has been less than stellar.
However, there are some signs of improvement. For example: The National Council of Chain Restaurants and the Food Marketing Institute (a grocery trade association) organized a panel of experts to create animalcare and handling guidelines for meat, dairy and poultry suppliers. They also have commissioned SES Inc. to develop a third-party audit program to ensure that suppliers meet those guidelines. As of mid-May, McDonald's alone had conducted 500 supplier audits worldwide.
NCCR and FMI have also worked with producer groups to incorporate some of the animal industries' animal-care guidelines into the NCCR/FMI program.
The Animal Ag Alliance, of which most specie groups are members, has its own set of vague animal-care suggestions (see www.animalagalliance.org). It has established a panel to create more detailed, species-specific, science-based animalcare programs. The Federation of Animal Science Societies and the American Registry of Professional Animal Scientists will tackle that effort, which will include criteria for third-party audits.
What remains to be seen is whether all--or any--of these groups will work together to create a single, unified food system program.
A fractured food system is exactly what the activists want. "If they can divide the industry, they will win," says Kaye Johnson, vice president of the Alliance.
To give any animal-care program validity in the public's eyes, and to combat future activist challenges, the food system will need to promote its efforts.
Activists revel in applying political pressure. They are no strangers to lobbying and making campaign contributions.
"Animal rights advocates faired well on Election Day (2002)," reports the Initiative and Referendum Institute, a non-partisan group that tracks ballot measures on all issues.
A stellar example is last fall's Florida gestation-crate referendum. By a margin of 54.8 percent, Florida voters made the use of gestation-sow crates unconstitutional.
It's estimated that two activist groups spent $1.3 million on the Florida initiative. CCF researchers think the final tally was higher.
But politics don't always work in the activists' favor. Oklahoma's state legislature made it a felony (punishable by up to three years in jail and a $10,000 fine) to disrupt animal agriculture, destroy farm facilities, "liberate" farm animals or otherwise "damage" an animal enterprise. It also addresses vandalism and other crimes against crop farming, which is likely an attempt to protect biotech crops.
A Superior Court judge threw out a PETA lawsuit charging that California dairy cows aren't as happy as the California Milk Advisory Board's "Happy Cows" campaign implied, and that it constituted false advertising.
Never lacking ingenuity, activist groups are now issuing reports to shareholders of companies illustrating their investment risk by owning stock in a company that "ignores environmental and food safety issues."
In April, Innovest Strategic Value Advisors, an investment-research firm, issued a report telling Monsanto shareholders that the company suffered from "above-average risk exposure" and "will likely underperform in the market over the mid-to long-term." At issue, according to the report, were Monsanto's biotechnology activities. It's worth noting that Greenpeace commissioned the report.
Around that same time, Ralph Nader's "Public Interest Research Group" issued its own report, warning investors that "Kraft Foods' use of genetically engineered ingredients poses risk of product recalls and liability lawsuits."
In May, the Sierra Club, Nathan Cummings Foundation and Amalgamated Bank's Trust & Investment Group submitted a joint shareholder resolution to Smithfield Foods, asking the company to examine environmental, financial and reputational risks of managing "hog factories that generate millions of gallons of animal waste." Smithfield is the world's largest pork producer and processor.
A violent fringe still exists among some groups. Leading that list are the Earth Liberation Front and its sister group, Animal Liberation Front.
By its own admission, ELF reported conducting "100 illegal direct actions" against businesses, government agencies and universities in 2002.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation has ALF and ELF on its terrorist list. Their members destroy medical-research labs, release animals, sever delivery-truck brake lines, plant incendiary devices in restaurants, send mail bombs and spray paint or torch SUVs. The FBI's counter-terrorism division reports that in the past six years, ELF has caused $43 million in damage.
For more insight into this segment of activist groups, visit www.animalscam.com
Caught in the web
So, where does all of this leave participants of the food system? In some respects, they're caught in the activists' web. That is unless a more unified effort develops.
"I don't think you can manage or market against them (the activists)," Berman says. "They have a lot of money, they're organized, they work together, and they use the Internet well.
"You have to go after them," he contends. "When you're on offense, you want to win. When you're on defense, you don't want to lose. Agriculture is always on the defense."
Trent Loos, an agricultural advocate who works with Faces of Agriculture, offers this: "As members of the food chain, producers, packers and processors must stand up and share the truth about the safety and wholesomeness of the meat produced in this country."
Add retailers, foodservice, the various input suppliers and employees for all of the aforementioned segments and you're on the right track.
Who's on your side?
No man is an island. Certainly that old saying applies to the food system as it faces opposition from a host of activist groups. You simply will not succeed alone. The thing is, your industry doesn't have to work alone.
Each industry segment has its own association that works in its favor. Essentially all of them at least monitor opponents' issues and activities. Some lobby, and others conduct research and educate members and the public. Here's a list:
* American Association of Bovine Veterinarians--www.aabp.org
* American Association of Food Hygiene Veterinarians--www.avma.orglaafhvldefault.htm
* American Association of Swine Veterinarians--www.aasv.org
* American Farm Bureau Federation--www.fb.org
* American Meat Institute--www.meatami.org
* Animal Health Institute--www.ahi.org
* Dairy Management Inc.--www.dairyinfo.com
* Food Marketing Institute (retail grocers)--www.fmi.org
* National Cattlemen's Beef Association--www.beef.org
* National Council of Chain Restaurants--www.nccr.net/newsiteindex.html
* National Pork Board (research, promotion and education)--www.porkboard.org
* National Pork Producers Council (public policy, legislation and regulatory issues)--www.nppc.org
There are a few groups that are working to join food system voices against the activists.
Here's a snapshot of those groups:
* Animal Agriculture Alliance--www.animalagalliance.org. Headquartered in Arlington, Va., the Alliance evolved from the Animal Industry Foundation in 2001 to expand its scope of work and reach a broader audience. Its stated mission is to "support and promote animal agriculture practices that provide for farm animal well-being through sound science and public education."
Membership requires a "tax-deductible commitment" annually. Alliance members include a variety of agricultural and food industry associations, science and research organizations, food-animal producers, cooperatives and allied industries.
* Center for Consumer Freedom--www.consumerfreedom.com. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., the CCF is a "non-profit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers working together to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices."
As stated on its web site: "CCF is not opposed to any group. We are opposed to actions that restrict your right to make your own choices, and to extremism that endangers businesses and individuals in the name of ideology."
The CCF receives financing via tax-deductible contributions. It acts as a watchdog, and something of an attack dog, against a variety of activist causes. It provides profiles and financing information on activist groups at www.activistcash.com. It also monitors the Center for Science in the Public Interest at www.cspiscam.com and the animal rights' movement at animalscam.com
* Faces of Agriculture--www.facesofag.com. "Securing our future in food production' is the tag line on the group's web site. FOA is reaching out to crop and livestock producers, processors, retailers and other "critical players in the production of food." Made up primarily of producer volunteers, the group offers tips and resources to inform others about agriculture and food production. "It is time to balance the scale with common-sense ideas based on sound science," the FOA web site states.
LESS SAFE 30% AS SAFE 35% MORE SAFE 33%