Jolley: Talking gestation crates with Matt Prescott of the HSUS

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Matt Prescott’s full title better explains what he does: Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) Food Policy Director for Farm Animal Protection. He joined HSUS three years ago after a stint as shareholder-campaign manager and head of corporate affairs at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).  People in Animal Ag would charitably describe his work experience as proof of a “checkered past.”

Although HSUS had been following a similar shareholder tactic for years, he brought his PETA experience with him to help further their Gestation Crate campaign.  He explainedit to the Boston Globe while he was still with PETA. "We purchase small amounts of stock and begin to attend their annual meetings. When we come up with a shareholder resolution, the company has to print up our message and send it to every investor. So everybody reads what we've written -- usually a statement about the graphic ways that the company is abusing animals."

Just so you know what an inventive activist he is - he purchased a plot in the cemetery where Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Col. Harland Sanders is buried. The epitaph on the gravestone reads "KFC Tortures Birds." Cemetery officials say they were tricked by PETA into placing the gravestone near the tomb where Sanders is interred.

So let me say this to people who scorn the initiatives taken by HSUS and might hope the whole thing will go away.  They are a smart, dedicated group who are well-organized and certainly well-financed.  And like them or not, they are very professional in their pursuit of their goal. 

The proof is in their remarkable record of moving their gestation crate initiative forward.  It’s been there for a long time, a decade or so, but without much notice until recently.  This year, it seems another major corporation is signing on the dotted line every week.  Their tactics are working and I have no doubt that they’ll soon mark this up in their ‘win’ column and focus more strongly on the next animal in animal ag.  With pigs and chickens well in hand, bovines will certainly be next.

To gain a better understanding of what’s going on at HSUS HQ, I tossed a few questions at Mr. Prescott.  Here’s what he said:

Q. Matt, I'm on your distribution list for press releases so I've been watching your gestation crate notes.  It seems like another company is signing on with increasing regularity.  So that the list doesn't get lost in the shuffle, who has signed on and what kinds of businesses do they represent?

A. It certainly has been the case that the list of food retailers with policies to eliminate gestation crates from their supply chains continues growing each week. This week alone, two major food companies joined the list: Subway and Harris Teeter Supermarkets. Subway has more locations than any other restaurant in the world, and Harris Teeter has more than 200 grocery store locations throughout the southeast; both are major pork buyers.

The entire list of companies looks like a “who’s who” of the food industry, including: McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Safeway, Kroger, Costco, Oscar Mayer, Cracker Barrel, Sonic Drive-In, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Baja Fresh, La Salsa Mexican Grill, Sodexo, Heinz, Kmart, Sysco, TrustHouse food services, Campbell Soup and ARAMARK.

And while most of these companies are household names, some of the biggest pork buyers are companies which Americans might not be as familiar with as, say, McDonald’s. Sodexo, ARAMARK and Compass Group – for example – are the nation’s three largest foodservice companies, serving, combined, tens of millions of meals every single day. And Sysco is the world’s largest food distributor, providing pork and other products to restaurants and other dining facilities everywhere.

When combined, these companies’ policies amount to a virtual ban on gestation crates by the food industry, and will necessitate a significant transformation  in production.

Q. Would you outline your reasons for calling for an end to gestation crates?

A. The HSUS agrees with experts like Dr. Temple Grandin and countless Americans who know that virtualimmobilization in gestation crates simply cannot provide adequate welfare for animals. Preventing an animal from even turning around – a modest freedom, by all accounts – for nearly her entire life results in perhaps more animal welfare problems than in any other agricultural system. Americans know that locking a 500-pound, social, intelligent animal in a crate where she can barely move an inch 24/7, and then lining hundreds of them up like parked cars, is both inhumane and unnecessary. As Dr. Grandin states, “Confining an animal for most of its life in a box in which it is not able to turn around does not provide a decent life.” 

Additionally, we know that the alternative system – group housing – is feasible within a largescale, modern food system, and provides greater opportunities for improved animal welfare. So this is a problem with a viable solution that farmers can implement, to the betterment of animals, and that will do a better job of addressing both the public and food companies’ demands: it’s a real win-win.

Q. I think any business that pledges to get rid of gestation crates does so out of a variety of reasons, personal and professional.  Would you recap some of the top reasons that you've seen?

A. The American consumer has changed, and is more interested in the origins of their food than ever before. On this issue particularly, Americans are concerned. A poll by the food industry consulting group, Technomic, found that animal welfare is the third most-important social issue to American restaurant patrons, outranking even the environment. Food retailers and some large pork producers – like Smithfield – recognize that fact and are changing their supply chains and practices to more closely align with people’s values on how animals ought to be treated. And virtually nowhere is the gap between what happens to animals and what consumers want for animals greater seen than with gestation crate confinement.

Additionally, food retailers now need to be able to back up their supply chains with scientific evidence supporting the practices they choose to utilize. On this issue, the science very clearly stacks up in favor of at least allowing animals the ability to turn around, which essentially means a transition to group housing.

Q. The pushback from the pork industry has been severe.  How are you responding to their challenges?
A. Some of the largest pork producers are moving toward a future where sows are housed in well-managed groups instead of crates. Smithfield, Hormel, Cargill, Maple Leaf Foods – these are just some of the major producers moving in this direction. And there are countless individual pig farmers who have either never used gestation crates, or are also moving away from them.

What pushback exists seems to be coming from pork industry officials, such as the National Pork Producers Council, which, oddly, has given farmers poor business advice to stay the course with gestation crates, despite the food industries massive and always-growing demand for a shift away from this system.

Unlike the NPPC though, The HSUS knows that farmers are innovative, and that many are indeed willing to move toward a gestation crate-free future. These farmers know that simply because something may have been done one way for decades, it doesn’t mean that it must be done that same way always. As all good businesspeople, they too want to strive for continuous improvement.

Q. Let's talk tactics.  From my perspective, it didn't look like your initiative had gained any traction until just a year or two ago and now it seems to have reached a critical mass.  How have you managed to move it forward so effectively?

A. This issue has been growing steadily for more than ten years.

The European Union passed legislation to outlaw gestation crates in 2001; that law goes into effect just three months from now. Then in 2002 – a decade ago – Florida became the first U.S. state to adopt a similar. Since that time, eight other states have outlawed gestation crate production.

Also in 2002, Chipotle became the first food retailer to prohibit gestation crates in its pork supply chain. In 2003, Whole Foods followed suit. Four years later, in 2007, Smithfield and Maple Leaf Foods announced that they would eliminate gestation crates from their company-owned operations by 2017. Later that year, Burger King announced that it would begin utilizing some gestation crate-free pork in its products.

The rapid-fire announcement we’re now seeing is simply the result of this decade-old movement toward better animal welfare reaching a tipping point.
Q. You've announced a broader perspective, buying stock in financial services companies that in turn own stock in pork businesses.  This is a step 'upstream' so to speak.  How will that help achieve your goal (and what is your goal)?

A. We purchased stock in four investment firms this week – JP Morgan, BlackRock, Prudential and Ameriprise – in an effort to work with those firms to drive improvements in the pork industry, in which they invest hundreds of millions of dollars. Each of these firms is a top investor of Tyson Foods and/or Seaboard Farms— two companies which continue defending gestation crates and seemingly refuse to adopt a pathway toward progress. Given the food industry’s demand for change, we view Tyson’s and Seaboard’s inaction as big financial risk to those companies, and ultimately, to their investors, which we plan to highlight with these financial firms.

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Roger Steiger    
Delavan, Ill  |  September, 01, 2012 at 04:21 PM

What about the death loss of baby pigs being laid on, stepped on, and crushed by the sows not in crates. Is that humane?

September, 02, 2012 at 04:10 PM

I think you're confusing gestation crates with farrowing crates.

California  |  September, 01, 2012 at 04:51 PM

Professionalism requires ethics and honesty none of which these people have or adhere to as they believe that anything is justified in their pursuit of getting money for HSUS.

california  |  September, 01, 2012 at 04:59 PM

The EU, England, the UK and Spain all have problems getting eggs to the point people are going out of business and food prices are ten times what they are here. That is the point to make eating meat costly and impossible. HSUS promotes so called ethical vegan eating where no meat or animal product is consumed. This causes irrational thinking and death in infants whose parents enforce strict vegan diets. For the so called ethical vegan, the production of their food alone reduces their claim that they are more moral because they do not cause the death of any animal is an impossibility and an essential lie. Animals are killed in untold millions, in the course of plant agriculture. Some are killed accidentally in the course of mechanized farming; some are killed deliberately in the course of pest control. Animals are killed, every day. Every potato, every stick of celery, every cup of rice, and every carrot has a blood trail leading from field to plate. So this idea that the earth will be more green if we don't eat animals it a lie and in fact it is more ethical to eat meat than it is to eat plants as fewer animals are killed and pasture land is not disturbed as it is in plant agriculture.

Oregon  |  September, 04, 2012 at 01:29 PM

I think you are missing the point here. HSUS uses the money they harvest from animal lovers and meat eaters to push for the total elimination of animal use by humans. If they admitted this, and tried to do it all at once, they'd get no support whatever, but they are smart enough to know that. They admit to a willingness to accomplish their goals incrementally, a little bit at a time. Their pressure on egg, dairy and meat users will result in escalating prices for animal protein, until they have created a down spiral which will result in the achievement of their goals. Their pretense of 'protecting animals' is just that - pure pretense. They have no interest in animal welfare, and in fact have stated that pursuit of animal welfare is an obstruction to their goals. It's not about the money, beyond the necessity of money's use to buy politicians and lobby for anti animal use and ownership laws. They are highly skilled at this.

IL.  |  September, 06, 2012 at 08:40 AM

Fine print says crated animals, Does not say gestation or farrowing crated. Does that include a group of market hogs with gates around them ? Cattle with gates around them ? Where is the line drawn ? There is no line here.

kansas  |  September, 06, 2012 at 10:02 AM

Before the HSUS Trolls show up, I'd like to congratulate and thank Mr. Jolley on this excellent piece of journalism. And, for his wise comment that HSUS is a Serious Threat to modern agriculture in the Western World. They are nothing to be trifled with and are led and managed by very intelligent people with no shortage of skills in public relations, legislative lobbying, legalities and fundraising. His questions, and the answers supplied, offer important insights into the issues and what to expect from HSUS in the future. The fact that Mr. Prescott chose to move from the ridiculously extreme and grotesquely controversial PETA to HSUS reflects a serious committment to disrupting and eventually destroying livestock production in the West by any and all means. Crates are an easy target to begin with as they are indeed legitimately questionable, and can eaily be portrayed as cruel - with videos especially. And they do have critics even within the industry - Dr. Grandin for one. It's important that we don't all lose focus, as HSUS wishes, on their ultimate goal of eliminating meat, as they work their PR/Legis-fare/Law-fare magic on the grossly ignorant, but well meaning, food services corps. and 1st world consumers. Tofu & other substitutes, along with advice on making them taste like sausage, will be filling the former meat counters if we simply stand-by and watch. There will be no revolt from sellers or buyers in our modern western societies, easily manipulated by marketing experts Creating demand (like those working for HSUS).

NW MO  |  September, 06, 2012 at 12:31 PM

I'm grateful for this article. I've been on a personal crusade to not eat at any restaurant that has come out in support of the HSUS ultimatums. Now I feel that I have a complete list. I will do my best not to consume any food from any of these providers. My wife is a partner in a Subway locally. I've eaten my last sandwich from there. I'm not a "nothing but crates" person but until the science comes out with something better, I'm in full support. You can tell that none of these people have ever seen a sow fight and the torn body parts as a result of those fights. Or the economics that show that the less productive sows tend to be larger and inflict great damage on their skinnier more productive counterparts. What is especially upsetting is that HSUS make the announcements FOR those companies. I'm not sure that I believe that NPPC and others are really fighting for us. We've got to get down in the mud so to speak.

Ct  |  September, 06, 2012 at 08:05 PM

This interview is puffier than Chris Christie's cheeks. Do you believe what you read in HSUS press releases? HSUS does not have the chicken issue "well in hand." Their proposed legislation for federal regulations was a bomb and a failure. Pacelle used it as bargaining chip in their negotiations with McDonalds, Smithfield, Burger King and the others, pretending the new regulations were a done deal. The HSUS argument was basically: The egg industry is committed to reform and you are still torturing pigs. The public wants change and you are missing the boat. Your image will take a hit and so will your profits if you don't make a deal with us. And we will sue you and file SEC complaints and tell your Board of Directors what cruelty purveyors you are. PETA brokered deals long before HSUS started taking credit for everything. PETA did the shareholder activism stuff, plus some juvenile public shaming media campaigns. I dislike PETA, but at least they didn't use thuggery, intimidation and shakedowns like HSUS. And they are honest about their goals.

Kerry Baker    
Melbourne, Australia  |  September, 07, 2012 at 06:58 PM

I find it very sad that the focus here is about gestation crates and not on ending farming of animals period. How can something be a win-win situation that ends in the slaughter of the animal? I am disappointed that globally organisations like HSUS and others focus on how animals are farmed, not that it is wrong to farm animals in the first place. Increasingly now evidence is showing that a whole food plant based diet is the healthiest anybody can have, so it is not so difficult now to get the information out there. Vegan food in 2012 is nutritious and delicious. And then there are the other ways we have of torturing animals, in laboratories and fur farms and circuses. We have a long way to go to be a compassionate species.

SD  |  September, 24, 2012 at 05:08 PM

Wouldn't it be great if the anti-meat eating zealots would go play in their own 'sandbox' and leave agriculture sites for their intended purpose: to disseminate information and generate exchange of ideas to improve agricultural practices for the REAL FARMERS, RANCHERS, and PROCESSORS who grow the best, safest food in the world which they can buy for an obscenely low cost?

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