HSUS, Packers and Producers
“All Aboard the HSUS Train?” – or – “Time to Get Off the Slippery Slope?”
by Richard Ellinghuysen - Opinion
October 16, 2012
Tyson Foods just initiated operating changes designed to protect their brand by responding to consumers concerns about animal welfare. A more cynical person might write, "Tyson Foods just initiated operating changes in an attempt to placate vegetarian animal activists, thinking that they will eventually leave them alone." Obviously the reality is much more complicated. But not by much.
Over the past decade or so the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has embarked on a state-by-state plan -- first by attacking U.S. states with a low pig population, then scaling up -- and getting gestation crates banned. States banning the use of gestation crates today include Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon and Rhode Island. Once HSUS was able to get one state to “tip over” they could use it as an example to the next target. And always with the “consumers are concerned” mantra. Their effort continues.
In more recent years HSUS has purchased shares in food companies and pressured them to ban purchases of pork from companies with hog suppliers who use crates. Companies who have announced bans of pork from crates (most become effective several years from now) include McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, Safeway and Campbell Soup. Once HSUS was able to get one company to “tip over” they could use it as an example to the next target. And always with the “consumers are concerned” mantra. Their effort continues.
Additionally, in recent years, HSUS style “consumer” pressure – leveraging the “tipped over” States and retailers -- got Smithfield Foods and Hormel Foods to announce that they were going to phase out gestation crates on the hog farms that they own. Once HSUS was able to get one pork company to “tip over” they could use it as an example to the next target. And always with the “consumers are concerned” mantra. Their effort continues.
While all of this has gone on, animal scientists, by and large, have stated that banning gestation crate use is not science based. Although not all agree. But most do agree that the use of gestation pens is not safer for the sows, and their health may in fact, be compromised. A sow’s life span is not enhanced by using pens rather than crates. But this isn't about science. This is about perception. It's about an aggressive, well financed activist community and a consumer population so far removed from animal agriculture that their only animal contact is a pet cat or dog or perhaps a gerbil. It’s about vegetarianism and the balance of power between the meat industry and activist organizers.
When HSUS got the food industry to believe that science could not be defended and that the media was the only place to fight with vegetarian activists, the fight to defend animal agriculture shifted onto the ground HSUS prefers to fight on. Unless animal agriculture and its defenders can find a way back to sound science and consumer/retailer education, the battle between meat eaters and vegetarian activists will now be fought with public relations and marketing and not with science. Perhaps it's always been this way, but as of today we're on the HSUS playing field and the slope is very very slippery.
As of last week Tyson has its own “branded” animal welfare program. According to an October 10 letter from Tyson CEO Donnie Smith to their suppliers, it's called FarmCheck. And according to Todd Neff, Tyson V.P. of Pork Procurement (in an October 1 letter to hog suppliers) the plan is "incremental to current NPB PQA Plus verification". As I understand it, there are other packers currently working on their own animal welfare programs. They may or may not be "incremental” to the National Pork Board (NPB) programs.
If more packers initiate their own animal welfare programs, will there be reciprocity between the packers? Will packers accept each others animal welfare program as equivalent to their own, or will a hog producer need to have an audit conducted by each packer they sell too – plus NPB PQA Plus with on-farm site assessment? Since the Tyson plan is "incremental" to the Pork Board's plan its apparent that the Pork Board plan either isn't good enough on it's own, isn’t trusted, or perhaps a packer branded animal welfare plan is a better sell to McDonalds (to pick a random food company who decided non-scientifically that they don't want crate produced pork). If the Pork Board plan isn't good enough - either as a sales vehicle or an animal care vehicle, will each packers plan be "as good as their competitors" – particularly when meat sales people approach a retail buyer? Where exactly are we on this slippery slope? Since it's not about science, what are we doing here? And who benefits? If we’re not careful HSUS will suck us into a battle of attrition: us versus us over “animal welfare” and soon, “animal rights”.
Will packers begin to compete at the wholesale/retail sales level by having the "better" non-science based animal welfare program? Hormel and Smithfield have already announced that they are phasing out gestation crates on the hog farms that they own. Tyson has not made that pledge. Does that mean Hormel and Smithfield will have better animal welfare than the “mere plan" that Tyson is offering? Or will Tyson stand on science and stick with crates and a welfare plan and vigorously defend it? If so, will they be alone? What would happen if Hormel and Smithfield decided to announce an animal welfare audit plan that’s “better” than Tyson’s? Unless we get a grip on this, we’ll be farther down the slope that HSUS wants meat companies on: in-fighting over the better welfare plan. Only HSUS gains from this. We’ve abandoned science so are we now on a path to cut each others throats over animal welfare plans? Once we decide that the National Pork Board’s plan is lacking and meat companies need to “go their own way” a new problem is created.
Please understand that it’s not my intent to be critical of any meat or food company. Producers, food and meat companies are all caught between the proverbial rock and the hard place. These companies have valuable brands that they’re trying to protect. But that’s not what I’m writing about. The issue is that the way we’re wired is to compete with each other. And when push comes to shove we act in our own best interest in the market place. But we’re being played here. And if we don’t find a way to work together as meat producers against well funded vegetarians with an anti-meat agenda, we’ll lose. Ultimately this isn’t about animal welfare as we or consumers see it. It’s about animal welfare the way vegetarians see it. And that means we’re up against an effort with the ultimate goal of stopping everyone from eating meat – and in the industries case, by making it impossible to produce meat affordably.
I once heard someone describe HSUS as PETA in a business suit. They were right. And it’s important that we in animal agriculture understand that no matter what we do to “improve” animal welfare, it will never be enough for HSUS or people like them. What’s next? Ban farrowing crates? Ban castration? Ban tail docking and clipping needle teeth? You know those are on HSUS “to do” list. Where does it end? Where do we say “enough”? Or do we? Can we? Will we?
Two days after Tyson issued their media release announcing their new animal welfare program, HSUS issued a release saying basically that it isn’t good enough. They said that Tyson still hasn’t announced an end to the use of crates on their farms. This past Monday, Whole Foods Market issued a media release headlined: “Something to gobble about: No crates or cages for Thanksgiving turkeys at Whole Foods Market”. Whole Foods went on to list its five-step “animal-focused practices” these include “outdoor access” and “pasture centered”. As a consumer that sure must sound good. Maybe their plan is better than Tyson’s, Smithfield’s and Hormel’s. I wonder if Cargill will be the first major meat company to announce that all of their pork will fit the Whole Foods model?
But maybe, just maybe, some pork producers – or even some of the companies who have decided against crates -- will decide to keep some crates after-all and push back. Maybe they’ll go with the Wal-Mart statement (the current stance anyway) that they’ll provide both and let consumers choose. Or perhaps some companies who have not formally weighed in on gestation pens will stand on science and not make the change (perhaps that’s what Tyson is doing). Maybe some States that haven’t banned crates will even push back – like the governor of Nebraska has vowed when he called out HSUS. Nebraska Governor Heineman said earlier this year that HSUS is anti-agriculture—and they’re trying to destroy the number one industry in his state. He said “I’m not going to let them do it.” Heineman said the intention of the HSUS is to oppose all forms of intensive livestock production and to promote a vegan agenda. He said states must reject any overtures for deals or compromises with HSUS.
Perhaps we’ll stop playing HSUS’ game and climb off the slippery slope. If it’s not too late already.