I apologize for re-running what can only be described as a totally predictable news event, but there’s a point to be made here.
Here’s the story: After an undercover video of alleged animal cruelty surfaced — this one involving a Tyson and McDonald’s poultry supplier — both of those companies cut ties with the supplier faster than a drive-thru delivery with the franchise owner standing at the window.
The Tyson-McDonald’s disconnect came after Mercy for Animals released an undercover video shot at a T&S Farm facility that showed chickens being stabbed and clubbed to death.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the animal rights group said it had documented abusive and inhumane conditions at the firm’s Tennessee facility, which supplies birds to a Tyson plant that produces McNuggets and other chicken products for the fast-food chain.
Not to go all Captain Obvious on you, but this story isn’t some groundbreaking development.
First of all, anyone who’s been taking in oxygen the last couple years should know that this Mercy for Animals video wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last, video purporting to show inhumane treatment of food animals at processing plants, growout facilities or feedlots.
Such “revelations” need to be kept in perspective. Although tremendous progress has been made in advancing the well-being of food animals over the past several decades, with thousands of participants in the industry — like any other business sector — there are still some bad actors out there, and many more dedicated activists eager to expose their bad behavior.
Second, let’s also keep in perspective the response of the customers of whatever “bad” operation is currently starring in some undercover video production. It’s pretty much a no-brainer for McDonald’s or Tyson or any other company with their size and clout to drop a supplier in a hot second when there’s the potential for being tainted as somehow condoning cruelty against livestock.
What do they care? Either company could drop a dozen suppliers tomorrow morning and only suffer a few logistical complications that wouldn’t disrupt operations for more than 5 minutes.
A reaction with some spine
What I’m more interested in is the response, as the late Paul Harvey might say, from the rest of the industry.
We know the PR impact of video footage surreptitiously filmed and cleverly edited to maximize the shock value of seeing bloody carcasses and line workers kicking, shoving and otherwise manhandling animals in ways we tell ourselves we’d never do.
We know the issues surrounding worker recruiting, retention and training, and we also know that society’s perceptions of what constitutes animal welfare continue to evolve, and always in the direction of greater scrutiny, stricter standards and heightened sensitivity to any sort of abuse.
We also know that these video exposés almost universally draw a swift and practiced response from the targeted companies, which draws little other than yawns from media members, who supposedly are interested in both sides of the story.
That’s unlikely to change.
But what about companies not in the cross-hairs, the ones whose logos and B-roll footage are not running on the 6 o’clock news? It’s tempting, I realize, to run the other way and wait out the storm when media salivate over these undercover videos. However, there’s no glory in that tactic and no long-term benefit to the industry, either.
Notwithstanding the editing job these clips undergo, it’s tough to deny the evidence right there in front of everyone who views them. As long as the only response to news coverage of animal cruelty is a rehearsed public relations statement that Company X is cutting ties with its former supplier, consumers will not only swallow the allegations that groups like Mercy for Animals attach to their videos, they’re primed to respond similarly to the next video, and to the next one after that.
However, what if the brand-name marketers not involved in these scandals stepped up and made it known that their organizations condemn anything even resembling the treatment of animals shown in whichever video clip is currently cued up for local and national broadcasters?
What if their executives were to make the point as strongly as possible that such behavior — whether it’s due to insufficient worker training, a few rogue employees or just a really bad day at the office for an otherwise reputable work force — is absolutely unacceptable and won’t be tolerated by others in the industry?
Such a statement would have far more credibility among both the media and the public than the predictable apology/calculated cut-off of a bad-boy supplier that’s the typical response of companies doing business with the culprit.
There’s one caveat though: The company making such an assertion actually has to believe in what they’re saying.
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.