Give the anti-industry activists credit: They know how to identify issues that seem benign enough to mute any opposition. Then they use their success to force their real agenda forward.

Here’s an issue that at first glance may seem only tangentially related to livestock production: A proposed ban on animal testing for cosmetics.

Not true. There is a serious campaign underway to enact such a prohibition in the United States that would mirror bans put in place in India and the European Union, and the strategy the proponents are using provides a case study of how anti-meat advocates intend to advance their agenda.

Let me demonstrate what I mean.

When the new Congress convenes in January 2015, Virginia Democratic Congressman Don Beyer is expected to take the lead on the animal testing issue, according to USA Today. Beyer succeeds retiring Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), who previously sponsored legislation prohibiting the testing of cosmetic products on animals and banning the sale of any new cosmetics if the ingredients were developed using animal testing.

“The United States must be a world leader and not a follower,” Beyer stated in one of his campaign emails, even though Virginia is home to several cosmetic companies, such as Tri Tech Laboratories in Lynchburg, Va., a custom manufacturer of personal care products. While such a ban would likely face tough sledding in the Republican-controlled Congress, the opposition might not be as entrenched as some observers would predict.

For example: More than 140 cosmetic companies have endorsed the proposed ban, including such industry leaders as the Body Shop and Paul Mitchell.

Now, for those who’ve never attended such trade shows as Beauty Expo USA or the International Esthetics & Spa Conference, let me share a bit of background. (A former employer owned one of those shows, which I attended as an “observer.”) These expos are part rock concert, with big-name acts blasting out techno-pop from full-sized stages right on the show floor, and part infomercial, with high-wattage spokespeople hustling products with all the intensity of a late-night cable pitchman. The only thing missing is an 800 number that you have to call right now to receive our special deal!

Basically, these brand-name hustlers are selling beauty salon owners on the idea that “professional” hair care and beauty products are so superior to similar products sold in drug stores and supermarkets that they can feel good about charging customers up to twice the price for shampoo, conditioner and hair spray.

Here’s one more fact that informs any discussion about animal testing: Virtually all of the ingredients used in health and beauty products have already been determined to be safe when used as directed. In other words, animal testing is a non-issue for most cosmetics companies. In fact, Paul Mitchell’s CEO brags that his company has banned the use of ingredients tested on animals for more than 30 years. How can he make that claim? Because their products use ingredients already determined to be safe as a result of previous animal testing.

Boldly proclaiming your support for a ban on animal testing, therefore, is nothing but more of the same high-volume, high-energy salesmanship that’s on display at any of the beauty industry trade shows.

One step at a time

More to the point, the same way that animal activists groups look for “soft spots” to inch their agenda forward — anyone remember the purely symbolic referendum banning gestation stalls in non-pork producing states like Florida? — the proposal to ban animal testing for cosmetics represents the identical tactic. Rep. Beyer’s bill is merely an incremental step forward toward the activists’ ultimate goal: banning all animal testing as cruel, inhumane and unnecessary.

Sara Amundson, executive director of the Humane Society Legislative Fund, came right out and confirmed that strategy, telling USA Today that the bill is a “marker” to build political support, followed by a “sustained lobbying effort” that activists plan to pursue in 2015.

By the way? The Humane Society Legislative Fund, despite its attempt to piggyback on the “Humane Society” brand, is not rated by Charity Navigator or any other non-profit watchdog. Why not? Because the organization is registered as a 501(c)(4) non-profit, which means that contributions to the group are not tax-deductible, since its mission is political, not charitable.

Amundson, to that point, said that proponents of the ban will attempt to portray the bill as a pro-business measure. “If U.S. companies have to comply with what’s already transpiring in the EU, one would want to ensure there aren’t any trade barriers,” she said.

Nice try.

The real goal of this bill is to segment one minor aspect of the vast amount of biomedical research currently conducted in laboratories across the country, and then use a ban in that area as a steppingstone to future proposals banning other uses of animals for medical, pharmaceutical and other scientific research.

Would you approve of testing an Ebola vaccine on animals before administering it to human patients? Activists would have the public believe that such safeguards are unnecessary, that all drugs could be tested for safety and efficacy simply by using “computer modeling.”

But if they phrased their campaign in exactly those words, it would go nowhere. So just like animal activists attempting to turn the country vegetarian, they go after the proverbial low-hanging fruit, embracing non-issues where bans and restrictions only marginally affect both industry and consumers.

It’s an effective tactic, but each step along such a pathway ultimately ends up in a very disturbing place. □

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator