The Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington, D.C.-based group that’s been profiled here before, does a lot of good work on behalf of animal agriculture.

If nothing else, the industry-funded NGO provides a strong voice to counter the relentless propaganda that animal activists spend all day, every day churning out. Most of the time, the media blindly parrots the activist message—no matter how outrageous—as part of journalism’s duty to “tell both sides of the story.”

For example: If 100 scientists, all with PhDs, announce that a review of the available research data demonstrates that certain animal husbandry practices are viable and even protective of animal welfare, while one loud-mouthed activist decries the very concept of raising livestock, the resulting story will include a quote or video clip of one scientist, with equal time for the activist.

As if their credentials and credibility were comparable.

Given that media proclivity, it’s important for as many voices as possible to offer alternatives to the anti-industry rhetoric of the professional haters, whose goals encompass the demonization and eventual (they hope) destruction of animal agriculture.

Science vs. sentiment

But here’s the problem with most counter-messaging on behalf of the industry: Too often, it takes the wrong approach, one that is the least effective way to make a dent in the conventional wisdom that anti-industry types try to pretend is the proper label for their extremist perspective.

Instead of addressing the emotional reactions generated by visuals of piglets behind bars or chickens in cages with alternative, positive imagery, industry’s approach too often is to fire back with facts, figures and data.

Take the issue of battery cages for laying hens as an example (and let’s stop referring to them as such, please?).  Activists have focused like a laser on this controversy, painting growers as monsters and editing hidden video footage to portray conditions at egg farms in the worst possible light. Why? Not because any of them actually stay up nights worrying about how well the chickens are sleeping, but because they recognize the strategic value of “shocking” photos and videos depicting hens as if they were trapped in their cages.

In response to such campaigns, the Center for Consumer Freedom issued a rejoinder that’s typical of the genre:

“Egg-laying hens are generally housed in cages, which ruffles some people’s feathers,” the CCF statement reads. “Aren’t birds better off running around outside, they ask? [However], the American Veterinary Medical Association notes that hens in cages have lower mortality rates. Moreover, cage-free and free-range environments expose birds to more disease vectors, predation risks and cannibalistic behavior (the phrase “pecking order” has a basis in fact).”

On its face, such a statement is concise, accurate, fact-based—and ineffective.

Why? Because fighting back with facts, when the opposition is tugging on people’s heartstrings and their sense of outrage doesn’t work too well.

Responding to an emotional reaction with a factual rebuttal doesn’t connect with the gut-level feelings that drive people’s beliefs and opinions on a whole host of controversial issues, with animal welfare-related topics near the top of the list. An emotional response—especially one that’s negative—requires a positive emotional appeal to counter the impact of the original message.

For example: Would you force your pets to live their lives hunkered down outside under a tree, regardless of the weather, at the mercy of predators, knowing their lives will be shorter, harsher and more difficult?

Of course not.

But that’s the life of a chicken in the wild—like any other bird—living a “natural” lifestyle, as activists insist they should.

So that raises the subject of housing as the preferred alternative, and that’s where facts and figures can come into play. Once there is agreement that animals benefit from housing, the question becomes, which type is best? Here, rather than the saying that there is a pecking order in life, the even older truism that “birds of a feather flock together” is preferable.

Left on their own, chickens, like many birds, tend to congregate in flocks, so certainly the idea of a pen or coop or an “enriched cage” (although I wouldn’t use the c-word) makes sense. And it is in that context that scientific data can be a supplement to—not a substitute for—the emotional appeal industry must make to the middle-of-the-road consumer, confused by conflicting claims about what’s humane and what’s not.

At the end of the day, it’s essential to have both emotional appeals and factual data to buttress the industry’s side of the debate over animal welfare.

But the former has to lead the way, not the other way around.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.