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Saturday March 24, 2018

Ten Lessons Retailers Should Take away from the Latest Criticism of Animal Farming, from Food-Chain Communications President Kevin Murphy

The latest undercover video secretly shot by a planted hire working for the activist group Mercy for Animals shows workers identified as employees of the nation’s fourth largest pork farm throwing and kicking young piglets, smashing one pig’s head to the floor to kill it. But there's a great deal of context missing from the inflammatory video scenes, and there's some important lessons grocers can learn from it, regardless of whether or not they are familiar with common farm practices.


Click on the play button to hear Kevin explain the ten lessons retailers can learn from this latest video

Mercy For Animals contacted officials at Costco, Hy-Vee, Kroger and Safeway, according to the Associated Press, gave them access to the video before its public release, and demanded they stop buying pork from this farm supplier. MFA Executive Director Nathan Runkle said this was one of the group’s first attempts to affect changes by directly attacking grocer retailers, a trend that is likely to increase. 

During the more than 50 years’ of food-chain communication experience represented by the principals at Food-Chain Communications, we have followed and actively studied what we now have come to coin the Food Morality Movement. This is a movement that seeks to condemn the modern food production system on the grounds of religion, ethics and morality. This ultimately is the root of the accusations against this pork farm and its retailing partners.

We believe debating the food system on the grounds of the Food Morality Movement is unfamiliar territory to most of its members, from retailers to farmers. And it requires tactics that are equally unfamiliar. For instance, activists like MFA understand this is not boxing; it’s jujitsu. Just as the ancient Japanese martial art uses a bigger and better-armed attacker's energy against him, rather than directly opposing it, MFA and like-minded activists are successfully searching the food chain for just the right pressure point, the place where they can inflict the greatest paralyzing pain to the entire system. Increasingly, that’s you, the grocery retailer.

Unfortunately, too many retailers aren’t prepared to respond with a defense against jujitsu; they still think they’re boxing. If you’re going to effectively respond to this new-age criticism, here are 10 things to consider:

bullet1 Avoid knee-jerk PR. I realize this is Public Relations 101, and trust me, I understand the urgency to rush a response to the public when you’re the focus of such heated attack. But the “any response is better than no response” school of thought is a losing proposition in this new fight. MFA, like other animal rights organizations, invests heavily in communication. Study this latest video yourself, and you’ll see: They are masterfully scripted, shot, edited, scored and presented to evoke deep emotion. When food-chain communicators let their own emotion (that is, fear) drive an immediate, shot-from-the-hip response, they’re bound to rush statements into the public debate that do more damage than damage control. Sometimes it’s OK to say “We don’t know what this is all about yet, but we promise to find out.”

bullet2 Know the context.A favorite saying of mine goes, “A text taken out of context is a pretext.” It’s an apt description of this latest video. Only until you understand what’s going on around the people “caught” on tape abusing animals can you begin to understand—and help your customers understand—that all is not as it seems. Much of the cruelty exposed is planted in the mind of the beholder long before the fleeting image reinforces it. For example, the worker pictured at 2:10 into the video “juggling” and “throwing” the baby pig is actually in the process of doctoring newborn pigs, probably in this case giving the piglet an injection of iron to keep him healthy as he grows. The pretext you see out of context is cruel handling; what you see in context is a worker who, highly efficient at his job, is moving through a single step in a process he likely repeated hundreds of times in the course of the morning that followed the clip, quickly injecting the pig and tossing it to his co-worker who—for the sake of reducing the pig’s stress level, is equally quick in returning it to the comforting presence of its brothers, sisters and mother.

Now, you can rightly argue that may represent a couple of workers who are possibly getting hasty and sloppy in their job, even possibly violating corporate standard operating procedures. But cruel?

Warning: Extremely graphic video 



Know the heart of the messenger. When Iowa Select Farms, the target of the video, reassures the public it “has a long-standing history of meeting high-quality animal care standards” and “a commitment to animal welfare and continuous improvement,” the response falls flat because it misses the ultimate point of the attack. Mercy for Animals is simply using criticism of Iowa Select’s animal care practices in order to advance a larger agenda: MFA believes humans do not have a right to use animals as they see fit.

Look at the group’s own words in its mission statement:

  • “…non-human animals are irreplaceable individuals with morally significant interests and hence rights. This includes the right to live free from unnecessary suffering and exploitation.”
  • “...MFA primarily focuses on…promoting cruelty-free food choices.”
  • "…cruelty to animals in the United States occurs at the hands of the meat, dairy, and egg industries - which confine, mutilate, and slaughter over 9 billion animals each year.”

So, even though the video pretends to be aimed at forcing Iowa Select to be more humane in handling the pigs it eventually turns into food, the very fact that MFA considers “slaughter” to be unnecessarily cruel clearly demonstrates the group will accept nothing short of vegetarianism. That’s their Achilles heal where effective response to the attack lies.

bullet 4Consider this an invitation to a deeper relationship, a deeper knowledge. The kind of contextualization necessary to understand the issues and explain them to consumers can only come by acquainting yourself intimately with your farm suppliers. If you don’t understand the reasons behind practices MFA consider inhumane, if you simply rush to condemn the food chain by acquiescing, as some retailers have, you may be endorsing accusations and accelerating an agenda you would otherwise vehemently oppose.

bullet 5You can’t be only partially guilty. In its public response to the MFA attack on purchasing such “cruelly raised” pork, the targeted retail chains were quick to attempt to distance themselves from the farm and its packer, to one degree or another. But when it comes to an attack on your ethics like this one, if you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound. There’s no waffling on being an animal abuser. Traditional distancing public-relations measures are simply not going to work.

bullet 6Understand the interconnectedness of the modern food chain. Here’s why you can’t hold the issue at arm’s length. As one grocery retailer said, “This is an industry issue.” But that defense ignores the reality that everyone is a part of that industry now. The grocery retailer can pass the blame back down the chain by ceasing purchases, but the reality is pork (and beef, and milk, and chickens, turkeys, lamb and eggs) has to be purchased from somebody. The nature of our interactive food chain—more accurately, food web--is not going to allow you to dismiss yourselves from accusations against your suppliers. “I’m just merchandising the stuff,” no longer holds water today. The New Food activism and Brand Environmentalism have trained today’s consumers well in one regard: If you purchase, you enable. You may have no direct role on the farm, but your influence impacts their behavior. Consumers understand that, and activists are openly betting on it to effect the changes they want to make in the entire system, one farm, one retailer and one consumer at a time.

bullet 7Don’t throw others under the bus. Because of that interactivity in the food-chain, it’s increasingly difficult to appear to be the righteous actor by pointing out those who are doing wrong. We have to understand attacks like this pit one entire vision of how a food system should work against another entire vision. Despite the fact MFA speaks the language of evolution in animal handling practices, its actions decidedly speak of revolution. When those of us who believe the system is in no such need of open revolution acquiesce in the fight by sacrificing a part of the chain seen as expendable, it almost inevitably rebounds to hurt everybody. A highly visible communications agency did it last year when it tried to appease the voices attacking large-scale egg farming over fears of Salmonella when it pointed out, why, there’s a lot more people sickened by E. coli in spinach every year!

bullet 8 Tour farm suppliers regularly. If I’ve successfully convinced you deflection is no long-term strategy, then the obvious next step is to actively participate in learning what your farm suppliers do, why they do it, and how they can help you defend against attacks like MFA’s. Programs like Farmer Goes to Market are a great start. While you are receiving the e-mail newsletter this is just the opening of the barn door. Tours, roundtables, and other close-up events are also offered through your state’s grocery retail organization.

bullet 9 Recognize the mission: To divide. When activists complain about “Big Ag” and “Big Food,” they’re right in one sense. 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—consumers who understand what’s at stake won’t let it be stopped. Therefore, they understand the ultimate mission is to divide the food chain against one another. Consumer against consumer, consumer against retailer, retailer against farmer, big farmer against little farmer, pet owner against animal farmer, and on and on.

“Schismatic differences about food have taken the place of schismatic differences about faith,” author and scholar Mary Eberstadt told me in a fascinating Truth in Food interview last year. Activists who want to reinvent the modern food chain in their own image understand that fact, and they understand shattering the united chain into inter-fighting elements not only works in their favor, it’s a prerequisite to rebuilding it through revolution.

bullet 10 The moral answer trumps all. To a man (and woman), every person I’ve seen attempt to respond to the MFA video so far has made the same mistake. They refuse to openly, actively and pointedly address the moral questions MFA raises. If you remember your high-school Aristotle (the father of rhetoric), he reminded us there are three legs to making an effective argument:

  • Logos, or logic
  • Pathos, or emotion
  • Ethos, or the ethics of those involved.

Mercy for Animals uses pathos masterfully in presenting the heartbreaking story of poor, defenseless animals being abused in the name of corporate greed. Corporate ag and food production employs logos at its highest level by reassuring consumers they have volumes of written, scientific welfare standards in place on all their supplier farms and they standards are backed by scientific studies and corporate standard operating procedures. And yet, the consumer—the primary audience each side is struggling to be hear from—is left without an answer to the final question: Who is right, and who is wrong. To be effective, we must be willing and able to turn the logical and emotional debates into the underlying moral questions. And then we must be able to answer them effectively.

Listen to our interview on Truth in Food with animal-rights opponent Wesley J. Smith, author of a Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy. He quickly dispatches the concept that animals are moral beings, capable of entering into a moral contract and thus owed the rights reserved to humans. Understand that argument, and retailers can begin to understand that adequate defense is not the soft middle ground of improved welfare standards, corporate commitment to continuous improvement in humane care, and other PR boilerplate. It’s the bright line of moral and immoral, right and wrong, unethical and ethical. That’s the new ground we have to either choose to fight upon, or risk having the ambush staged there, catching us wholly unprepared.

Go ahead, ask… Watch the video and then use the comment section below to ask us: What’s right about the parts that bother you most. We’ll find farmers who look forward to the debate.

Is corn feeding causing E. coli?

The recent deadly E.coli outbreak in Germany has breathed new life into the Internet amateur food scientists’ claim that “factory farming” of beef cattle is causing the epidemic. More specifically, the “unnatural” practice of feeding corn to cattle corn is causing the outbreak. The cure, then, according to those like Modern Serenity blogger Nick Andre, is simple: “The solution is ultimately to favor a grass-fed, pasture raised model of raising cattle rather than a feedlot based operation.”

But would such a system-wide change really affect the amount and severity of E. coli in the food system? Nebraska U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologists Elaine Berry and James Wells, who are headquartered at Clay Center, reviewed more than 280 existing scientific studies on the subject last year for a book chapter in Advances in Food and Nutrition Research. Here’s what we know—and don’t know—based on the best of the research:

  • The Nebraska researchers caution that the potential effects of what cattle eat on how much and how often they shed the dangerous form of E. coli, O157:H7, must be deduced by looking at the overall large body of research, not from any single study. However, that’s the mistake pasture-feeding advocates often make by relying on a single study from 1998 that involved only three cows. In that study, cattle fed a ration made up of corn and ground soybeans, typical of what most cattle feedlots use, had higher total E. coli populations than cattle fed only hay. When the grain-fed cattle were abruptly switched to hay, the number of E. coli in their manure dropped by a thousand times, and the number that could pass through the acidic environment of the human stomach and thus posed a higher threat of illness declined by 100,000 times. However, what’s important to bear in mind about the study is this: No E. coli O157:H7 were detected, in any of the animals. The authors merely assumed the dangerous 0157:H7 strain would behave similarly to the generic E. coli they found. We know, based on research since, that’s not necessarily true.
  • When you do look at that larger body of research, it does seem that more E. coli, including the dangerous 0157:H7, does appear in the manure of cattle fed grain diets than those fed forage diets. But the conclusions of the numerous studies on the effect of switching to hay are often contradictory and far from clear, including studies showing cattle purposely infected with E. coli O157:H7 were potentially infective to cattle around them for more than ten times longer when fed hay than when fed corn. The bottom line is we know we can change the amount and severity of E. coli by changing the diet of cattle, but we don’t always know why, nor how to repeat it consistently. We do know feeding a grass-based diet is certainly no silver bullet.
  • The review demonstrates another thing we know to be true of E. coli O157:H7: It is naturally carried by animals never fed corn-based feedlot diets, including both tame and wild deer, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, rats, pigeons, gulls, rooks, starlings, and numerous other species of birds.

Corn and chopped corn plants (silage) are an important part of producing cattle to the quality level your customers demand, and they have been for more than a century. As any farmer who has had the unfortunate experience of leaving the gate to a corn field open around a group of cattle can tell you, cattle enjoy corn, whether or not they evolved to eat it. Cattle benefit from the nutritional profile of corn, when they are fed in the controlled environment of a feedlot that are almost always under the care of a professional nutritionist, and consumers benefit from the efficiency corn and soybean based cattle feeds bring by their lower beef prices.

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment by clicking the link below. 

As you court the green movement's call for more "local, sustainable" farming, it's important to be completely clear about some of the movement's underlying assumptions.

When Bill Weida, a retired Colorado College professor of economics, spoke before the 2011 Nebraska Environmental Action Coalition meeting in Lincoln on April 30, he repeated a piece of conventional wisdom that should tip off grocers to the underlying philosophy of today's "local and sustainable" farming movement. 

“...consumers are willing to pay more for better food," Weida told the Lincoln audience, "[but] it costs more for traditional agricultural products because it’s a closed system: farmers are doing all the production, processing, and marketing.... Right now, the land and production skills for sustainable agriculture still exist, but what’s missing is the processing and marketing.”

Weida, a former director of the Food and Water Watch's Global Resource Action Center for the Environment's Factory Farm Project, travels the country presenting his economic case that the current food system as we know it is broken and unsustainable. Because industrial farmers (that is, the larger farms that today raise the majority of our food and fiber) keep on producing even when markets are down -- unlike traditional small farms that either cut back on cropping and livestock or went bust in response to market declines. The result, Weida argues, is a system that is chasing unsustainable levels of production, a system that must return wholecloth to the traditional small-farm system in which farmers not only raise food for their communities, but they process it, deliver it and market it themselves, as well.

Weibe isn't alone in that sentiment. Locally raised is a double-edged sword that may actually work against the community grocer. Why?

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