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Mercy for the Messenger

Consumer preference for more ethical and healthy fare is driving change in food and farming. Animal welfare concerns are often at the heart of this change. Spurred by activists exposing cruel treatment of livestock, many operations have made welcome and humane improvements in how farm animals are handled.

Still, it seems every week another farm is stung by undercover activists documenting abhorrent abuse. One group, Mercy for Animals has been quite effective with these tactics. In early June they released a video culled from months of undercover work on Colorado’s Cactus Acres dairy farm. As reported by Harvest Public Media’s Luke Runyon:

The videos, recorded by an undercover investigator with Los Angeles-based group Mercy for Animals, allegedly shows employees at Cactus Acres Holsteins kicking the animals in their heads and udders, stabbing cows with screw drivers and violently pulling their tails.

Law enforcement are currently combing through the more than 300 hours of video recorded at the farm, which Mercy For Animals handed over in May, Crone says. But the actions may not yield any criminal charges.

“It may look inhumane and it may look like bad business practice, but it might not cross a line into criminal activity,” Crone says.

Mercy For Animals wants more than just criminal charges against the workers. The group, which previously released videos documenting abuse at a Colorado hog farm, said in a release they expect Dairy Farmers of America to tighten rules for its member farms. Cactus Acres is a member of the Kansas City-based cooperative.

Many of the subsequent actions taken were laudable, if not SOP, including Cactus Acres assertion that abusive employees were either terminated or rebuked and DFA putting the dairy on probation while an audit is conducted. What the DFA cooperative and Cactus Acres chose to do next is what’s concerning.

Instead of a conciliatory, “we’ll strive to do better” message, they went on the attack against the Mercy for Animals operative. The Denver Post’s Jesse Paul writes of DFA’s revamped strategy when dealing with long-term undercover stings that the cooperative also detailed in this news release:

“It is disheartening that groups like Mercy For Animals, which claim to have animal care and wellness at heart, seek change through deceit and misconception, rather than working with the industry to proactively address their concerns,” the statement said. “When animal abuse is witnessed, it should be immediately reported, not recorded.”

Monica Massey, a co-op spokeswoman, contends the undercover activist who filmed the plant incited the abuse. “We’ve kind of had enough, and we’re pushing back,” Massey said.

“Report, not record” is their new mantra. They even made a hashtag. But reading the reporting Mercy for Animals says their stinger did report the abuse, repeatedly. Animal welfare stings like this are effective in generating attention because by design they take time and subterfuge to accomplish. And it demonstrably works gauging industry’s now gross overreaction.

What doesn’t work is a classic shoot the messenger PR campaign – a misguided approach perpetuated by Richard Berman’s cabal of mercenary food industry defenders.

I get it; you have employees you thought you trusted who abused your animals. You also have an employee you thought was someone else who ended up dropping dime on your operation. Also, since some activists are in business to not just stop abuse but to end animal agriculture altogether, that knowledge doesn’t exactly put you at ease. So Cactus Acres’ frustration is understandable — to a point. But when you’re lamenting that the stinger “would act so contrary to our values” and abuse occurred at your operation its time to reassess your communications strategy.

In the long run consumers, right or wrong, will view shooting the messenger as another dodge of responsibility and will act accordingly.

Over at Dairy Herd Management, however, they’re cheering the shoot the messenger tactic.

But, seemingly immediately, DFA fought back. They must have had a plan ahead of time, and so far it is working brilliantly. It should be stated, almost every video has had some moments of real abuse — and there’s no excuse for that. But how the videos are made and the actual concern for the animals is the real process we need to question.

It’s how the video was made, not “moments of real abuse” we need to question.

At industry publication Meatingplace, longtime corporate meat guy Mack Graves worries much of this behavior is becoming institutionalized:

Have we become complacent and let our bad behavior become the norm?  There may be a chorus of nays from all of you reading this, but I worry that over 100 years of processing and marketing beef, hogs and chickens many bad behaviors may have become inculcated and institutionalized.

What am I talking about?  Management of a plant, organization or farm and ranch, or marketing our wares to consumers, that’s what.  We cannot honestly blame the line person doing the hard work in our plants who may use a water hose spraying hundreds of gallons washing floors when a broom or squeegee would do; or when management applies pressure to get as many animals processed as possible, at the lowest cost, of course.  So, electric prods are used in the loading pens and lead-up chutes.  Or, how about when the marketing department bends the rules slightly in describing the benefits of their product.  The blame for these bad behaviors rests squarely on the manager’s shoulders.

Is DFA’s shoot the messenger tactic is working? Not if you measure it by the reaction to Mercy for Animals’ next sting released on June 17th.

Poultry producer Foster Farms suspended five employees Wednesday after an undercover video appeared to show inhumane treatment of chickens at the company’s Fresno slaughterhouse.

Foster Farms said it was complying with the police investigation and is “reinforcing animal-welfare training companywide.”

No blame the messenger rhetoric from Foster Farms, instead contrition, action and a plan moving forward. So are there proactive steps animal producers can take to protect animals and address the toll paranoia from undercover activists has wrought?

Lawyer and New York dairywoman and dairy advocate Lorraine Lewandrowski suggested to me the potential creation of an animal abuser registry by industry. The idea being like Las Vegas’ black book for casino cheats, if you harm animals you can’t work in the industry anymore. There’s also a nascent audit system.

These are publicly proactive steps to take in a situation where knee-jerk reactions only serve to further erode consumer confidence.

Don Carr

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