NEW FOOD MOVEMENT

Navigating the New Food Movement: Why farm cruelty videos attract viewers, and why you should care

Mercy For Animals, the nonprofit "...on the frontlines fighting to protect farmed animals, ...dedicated to preventing cruelty to farmed animals and promoting compassionate food choices and policies," put out its latest cinematic drama in late June. The footage, shot this spring by a hired MFA plant pretending to be a farm worker at Washington's Briarwood Farms, a supplier for egg distributor Eggland’s Best, edited together footage of people engaging in questionably cruel behavior with somber and brooding images of caged chickens, artfully gloomy background music and poetically suggestive narration. It all combines to further the group's constant narrative: The system of caged-hen production is unacceptable.

This June video followed the same model of MFA's past works targeting not only poultry, but also pigs, milk cows, turkeys, veal calves, and even ducks. They all skillfully use isolated depictions of animal cruelty (some real, some implied or staged) by individuals to cinematically indict the wider system of intensive animal production or individual practices like caging hens, keeping pregnant pigs in individual stalls, beak-trimming to prevent cannibalism, or confined housing.

Their ultimate goal? To name and shame suppliers to large companies, who can then be pressured to announce changes. Those announcements can then, in turn, be used to coerce smaller, less powerful retailers and food producers into submitting. All are designed to make food production more burdensome and more expensive, even as they do little to really improve animal welfare.

Eggland’s Best's director of quality assurance told Fortune he was skeptical about the authenticity of this latest video. He said MFA contacted Eggland’s Best numerous times prior to publishing the video, promising that if the company publicly committed to cage-free eggs, the group would edit the narration to spin in favor of the company. If not, the story would position Eggland's as cruel and inhumane. “It seems a little bit like this is a set up,” the director said.

"Following pressure from caring consumers," the video narrator of the final video breathlessly intones, "many of the biggest companies in the world, including McDonalds, Kroger, Walmart and many others, committed to stop cramming hens in cages. But not Eggland's best."

Meanwhile, the Independent Grocers Alliance, which represents over 1,000 retailers nationwide, joined the growing list of retailers who have caved to the group's pressure, announcing, "It is our goal to source 100 percent cage-free eggs for IGA by 2025 based on available supply. IGA, its retailers and its wholesalers do not tolerate animal abuse of any kind, and we expect our suppliers to adhere to accepted industry standards."

Although it's understandable to be sympathetic to a retailer who feels they can't win against the public spectacle of a well-financed juggernaut like Mercy for Animals, pushing back against this corporate extortion is critical to the health of the food system in the long run, says lawyer and award winning author, Wesley J. Smith. A senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and an expert in bioethics regarding both animals and humans, Smith's A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement tears apart both the tactics of the animal rights movement and its underlying, flawed philosophy.

"Animal rights activists have very successfully positioned themselves in public society in a way that is false," Smith told us shortly after publication of his book. "Most people think it's about just being nicer to animals, which of course is an important human endeavor. But the purpose of the animal rights movement literally is to end all domesticated animals and put all animal industries out of business."

MFA's video protestations about poor animal welfare notwithstanding, animal-rights groups like Mercy for Animals aren't really interested in the welfare of animals, beyond how much it furthers their animal-rights mission. In fact, Smith argues, animal-rights activists hate the animal-welfare movement, because it recognizes a moral superiority of humans that gives them dominion to judge welfare by their own standards. "In animal rights dogma," he says, "animals and humans have equivalent moral value. What animal rights activists have done is they have hidden much of their true agenda behind the good reputation of animal welfare."

Corporations like those that MFA praises in the video which have acquiesed are playing into their strategy, walking a dangerous line by agreeing to standards that science demonstrates have little to do with welfare, but ultimately advance the ideology of animal rights.

MFA attracts viewership and sympathy by cinematically creating an illusion that animals are human, worthy of equal moral consideration, and then evoking pity for them and outrage on their behalf from the consuming public. Those emotions are then channeled to further the mission of dividing the food chain against itself. They know that when the modern food chain is united in its shared goal to feed everybody as efficiently and as effectively as possible, there’s no stopping it in that goal. In fact, consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. But when those animal-rights groups successfully pit consumer against consumer, consumer against retailer, retailer against farmer, big farmer against little farmer, pet owner against animal farmer, and on and on, they can pick off otherwise unwinnable targets one by one. Understand that argument, and retailers can begin to understand there's no adequate defense in the middle ground of appeasement.

Grocers: Where does this all stop, in your opinion? Is this newfound attention to animal cruelty really consumer-driven, or is it artificially created by a small minority? Were you to resist on your consumer's behalf, what support would you like from the farm commodity groups? Farmer Goes to Market will follow up on these questions and more. In the meantime, leave us a comment below or, if you prefer to remain anonymous, send us an email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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