The activist’s dilemma

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It’s normal to have a certain amount of tension when competing items on any advocacy group’s agenda overlap each other. But when the stated goals of an entire “movement are in direct opposition to each other,” that calls for a thorough re-examination of exactly what it is the proponents are demanding.

Such is the case with the coalition of organizations and activist groups allied in opposition to the meat and poultry industries. Let me explain by asking an easy-to-answer question: What are the top three talking points that critics of animal agriculture, confinement production, “Big Ag”—however you want to label it—are always spouting? Most readers could answer that off the top of their heads:

  1. The very size and scale of modern production: Animals “crammed” into cages or pens, jammed into massive feedlots or crowded into too-small stalls where they lead lives of misery and suffering.
  2. The “wasteful” deployment of feed grains, energy and water required to maintain hog barns, growout houses or feedlots, resources that could be better used to feed humans the cornmeal mush, dried oats and processed soy they (allegedly) prefer.
  3. The nutritional inferiority of the high-fat, high-cholesterol fare derived from genetically inbred livestock stuffed full of grains they shouldn’t be consuming and fattened beyond recognition before being sliced up or ground up into heart-stopping servings of saturated fat.

Right? In one fashion or another, those are typically the arguments activists trot out to demonize producers and, by extension, those who enjoy the animal foods ranchers, feeders and growers produce.

Now, consider the anti-industry crowd’s consumer advocacy allies. Their complaints echo the three listed above, with the additional demand that more and tougher regulations are needed to curb abuses in animal handling and threats related to food safety, right?

Well, here’s a suggestion made by many people—including those within the industry—that would address all three of the complaints activists harbor regarding meat and poultry production: The processing, marketing and widespread sale of game meats at retail and/or foodservice.

Think about it. If deer, elk, buffalo all could be harvested sustainably from their natural habitats, wouldn’t that obviate virtually everything the activist crowd faults the industry for doing? Wild animals don’t exist in numbers beyond that which is suited to their environment and food sources. They aren’t penned up, they live off “natural” forage and they don’t require supplemental feed sources to maintain growth and viability. And the meat derived from such animals is typically lower in fat, lower in saturated fat and thus lower in cholesterol, as well.

If we were able to substitute game meat for even a percentage of the beef, pork and poultry we’re currently eating, wouldn’t that mitigate all of the “bad things” associated with modern livestock production?

A conflict of interests

Only one problem: To do so would require rolling back the other cherished priority anti-industry types always embrace: Government regulations.

The very nature of game harvesting—which would have to be done at least partly by individual hunters—means that the numbers and concentrations would be much smaller overall and far too localized to support high-speed, centralized packing plant operations. So we’re talking about the need for dozens and dozens of small-scale plants capable of handling a maximum of hundreds, not thousands, of animals a week.

Yet those plants have largely disappeared over the past 20 years. Why? The compliance costs associated with tougher federal inspection regulations—especially HACCP—forced most of them to close up shop. You can’t have heavy-handed oversight, the kind activists profess to love, coexisting with mom ’n pop packing plants that have limited access to capital and even less access to other resources needed to cope with increasingly burdensome regulatory hurdles.

In other words, if you’re fighting for stronger, tougher, tighter regulations—the cop on every corner approach to meat and poultry inspection—then you can’t keep lamenting the fact that only the “Big Boys” seem to be able to survive.

You hate the size and scale of modern feedlots, high-volume packing plants and mega-billion dollar food companies dominating the industry? Then you need to shut up about demanding more restrictive regulations.

Because that not only eliminates from the equation the little packers, but also the alternative species that might arguably be a good fit for the activists who claim they only want to reform the industry.

You can’t have it both ways.

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

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