Fleshing out a Conversation With the Meat Industry

An employee works on June 16, 2011, on the frozen ground beef production line at at the French company SEB (Societe Economiqu
An employee works on June 16, 2011, on the frozen ground beef production line at at the French company SEB (Societe Economique Bragarde) in Saint-Dizier, eastern France. Six children are being treated in hospital in Lille, northern France, for food poisoning related to a rare strain of E.coli bacteri, after having consumed suspect sold under the brand 'Steak Country' at the Lidl store chain. The children had eaten defrosted hamburgers made by SEB in Saint-Dizier which said that part of the meat it received was taken from animals slaughtered in Germany and processed in France. AFP PHOTO FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI (Photo credit should read FRANCOIS NASCIMBENI/AFP/Getty Images)

Increasing numbers of state legislatures are passing bills referred to in the media as Ag-Gag, though within the livestock industry they are known as "Farm Protection" bills. These bills effectively shut down any collection of film, photos or recordings on farm, or processing plant property, without express permission of the owner. For individuals, or organizations such as PETA, Mercy For Animals, and the Humane Society of the United States, this means that they will risk heavy fines and possible prison time for shooting images, or taking a job with the intent of exposing industry or farm practices.

In an effort to better understand why the livestock industry would need such protection, I turned to Emily Meredith, the communications director at the Animal Agriculture Alliance, a trade group for the industry.

She explained to me that banning the collection and dissemination of unauthorized images was essential to preserving the health of livestock agriculture and the rural way of life. When the public sees an unsavory example of animal abuse, it has an impact on their buying habits. "Farm Protection" laws are really meant to safeguard local economies. Typically a processing plant is a big local employer so when sales go down, that affects the workforce, which in turn adversely affects the community.

Aside from the questionable logic of that argument, what emerged in our discussion was a startling glimpse into the circled wagons mentality of the meat industry. Ms. Meredith told me that the "culture of dishonesty" displayed by groups or individuals bent on seeing the worst, was what prompted the meat industry to seek legislation "protecting" farming and production. Curiously, rather than seeing secrecy as the ultimate public relations faux pas, the meat empire has doubled down on the iron curtain strategy.

Industry mistrust was further exposed in a recent article on Meatingplace.com, where the Pew Charitable Trust and the National Resources Defense Council were referred to as "extremist" organizations, a term I normally associate with Al Qaeda, or people who bomb abortion clinics, not public interest groups. The Animal Agriculture Alliance and the Activist Watch blog, which Ms. Meredith pens for Meatingplace.com, are there to "monitor" because "These groups hope to see a vegan world, a world where animals are not used for food production." she told me.

The tragedy here is that by secretly taping worst practices in livestock production, animal activists have driven the meat industry into a defensive posture where any dialogue about bettering the lot of animals, (not to mention the workers), has become all but impossible. Yet without those secret tapes, consumers, not to mention regulatory agencies, would never know of the abuses that until recently were all too common. And while the cattle industry appears to have substantially cleaned up its act, it is hard to say if poultry and pork have followed suit, so impenetrable are those sectors.

Whether a vegan agenda is indeed the goal of these various animal welfare or public interest groups is beside the point. The unfortunate result is that the meat industry has achieved a level of crippling paranoia despite the reality that we are a meat loving population. Moreover, the rest of the world is rapidly adopting our meat-centric lifestyle. It seems unlikely that profits will decline significantly as a result of all the protests in the world from HSUS and its ilk.

There are few means available to the industry to assure the public that they are doing their jobs the right way. The most obvious is to implement a continuous video stream in processing plants that is audited by a third party, a system long advocated by Dr. Temple Grandin, the noted animal behavior expert. This transparency would force plants to comply with existing animal handling protocols. Equally importantly, those videos will show consumers exactly what happens when an animal is killed. In fact, in an effort to combat common misperceptions about the process, Meat News Network and Dr. Grandin recently produced a series of videos taking viewers through that process; a definite step in the right direction.

Over the last four of five years, there has been a steady drumbeat of disapproval aimed at the meat industry for animal abuse, clearly much of it justified. But beating up on animal agriculture for getting the job done cheaply and efficiently will neither make the industry go away, nor will it encourage the changes many would like to see made. With large chains such as Burger King committing to buying pork only from producers willing to phase out gestation crates, it is clear the industry can and does listen. It just needs to do more.

On the other side, activists should be more respectful of what the industry does right, rather than tearing them down every time one player makes a mistake. The public demanded cheap and plentiful supplies of protein, and the meat industry has complied brilliantly. From their point of view, this sudden scrutiny of their methods is bewildering and unfair. We didn't object before, so what's the problem now?

Some of those methods are very cruel, and now that people have gotten a look through fair means or foul, they want change. Meat processors should be open to making adjustments to their practices, not slamming the door on consumer concerns. Instead, they can explain the infrastructural challenges that altering current practices present. They can offer a cost analysis of what it will mean to make those changes. It is entirely possible consumers would pay a few pennies a pound more if they knew that chickens are not packed into 17 square inch boxes, or that pigs are not kept in confinement. But they haven't been offered a choice. Industry can do more to train workers in humane practices and slow down their production lines to avoid the financial pressures that indirectly encourage animal abuse.

By succumbing to paranoia and pushing legislation that makes their business more opaque than ever, the meat industry may indeed find itself on the losing side of the financial equation, despite the global predilection for their products. It would seem to be in the best interest of consumers and trade alike to spend some time listening to each other to see where common ground can be established rather than indulging in the schoolyard tactics that exist today. We won't be feeding the growing population on grass finished, free range meat however desirable that might be, so we must make peace with our industrial model in a way that meets everyone's needs.

You can listen to the interview here.