2015 was a busy year for dealing with HSUS and other activist groups.
Legislatively, things were at a bit of a stalemate. HSUS was not able to pass a single ban on individual maternity pens anywhere. But save for North Carolina, the ag industry was not able to pass any “see something, say something” laws regarding undercover farm videos.
However two threats hang over the industry for 2016.
The first is antibiotics. We’ve seen a growing number of stories at the end of this year pushing the narrative that the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a public health threat. In the fall, several environmental groups released a report attacking a number of restaurants brands. One of the targets, Subway, caved in to these groups and promised to go “antibiotic-free” in 10 years. (Unstated is that these long time frames are unenforceable and work to get everyone to see the “agreement as a “win”). Perhaps the industry needs a consumer campaign that points out all meat is already antibiotic free when it reaches the consumer. Obviously Subway doesn’t feel that their current meat supply complies.
Query: Will the industry learn from the maternity pen fight and get ahead of this issue while they still have time? The public needs to understand that doctor and patient abuse of prescription drugs is ground zero for the problem.
The second threat is the HSUS ballot measure in Massachusetts that would not just ban maternity pens (which aren’t used in the Bay State), but it would also ban the sale of pork in the state if maternity pens were used in production. In short, it’s a bacon ban. Unless you can sneak some over the border from Rhode Island.
It’s the broadest proposal of its kind, but we know what it would do. A California law banning the sale of eggs from conventional cages (that is, most eggs) went into effect in January, and the price of eggs shot up. And that was before the avian flu problem made things worse.
If it passed, this Massachusetts ballot measure will wind up in court on interstate commerce grounds. But all HSUS needs is a sympathetic or activist judge. It’s a risky proposition to leave unaddressed.
And lessons should be learned from the egg cage issue in California’s Prop 2 in 2008. Back then, the egg industry fought the measure with largely economic arguments, saying that the measure would cost California jobs and cause the egg industry to move to neighboring states. That argument didn’t move the needle. The messaging in Massachusetts must touch people on a more personal level than economic abstraction. Prop 2 won handily.
2015 ends on a high note with the recent fall from grace of Chipotle. No doubt many in the ag community experienced schadenfreude at the burrito chain’s E. coli troubles in conjunction with the chain’s epic collapse of its “Food with Integrity” slogan. Many found Chipotle’s modus operandi figuratively vomit-inducing; many of its customers found it out literally.
Chipotle has been the standard-bearer of the anti-agriculture crowd. Now that the chain is hurting, people have begun to notice that the multiple foodborne illness outbreaks may have had to do with the company’s sourcing practices. This broader weakness of the brand has presented an opportunity to communicate to the public about the multiple parts of Chipotle’s marketing—such as antibiotic and hormone use—that are deceptive. Our “Chubby Chipotle” campaign has been hammering away at these points.
Chipotle is a clear example of offense vs. defense. Playing offense, it can put up “antibiotic free” advertising and mislead the public. On defense, it has to defend its practices and can be exposed. Looking ahead to next year, every producer and packer should consider taking the fight to the activists. Whether the issue is HSUS, antibiotics, or something else, you need to stay in the driver’s seat and not let activists take the wheel.