Recent columns here have explored the contours of industry messaging as a counterpoint to the exaggerations, half-truths and outright deceptions propagated by activists opposed to all of animal agriculture.

We’re not talking about farm reform groups, nor pro-organic foodies, nor advocates for local agriculture, no matter what their motivation or how provocative their messaging. The discussion was in reference to how best to defeat the well-funded, tightly scripted coalition of NGOs that demonizes animal agriculture and blames producers and ranchers and feeders for some of the world’s worst problems.

The problem is not only the scope and scale of anti-industry campaigns but the unseemly willingness of major media to blindly repeat the activist talking points without a whole lot of critical evaluation. As can be documented ad nauseam, for every dozen reputable, credentialed scientists who speak out on animal welfare or food safety, as examples, the typical media treatment of the story almost ritualistically includes a mouthpiece from some activist group spouting a raft of factoids that can charitably called, at best, controversial.

Too often, industry sources try to fight the emotionally charged arguments of activists with dry, sober data, and too often the tactic falls flat.

Richard Berman, the Washington, D.C.-based lawyer and lobbyist who is the founder and driving force behind such pro-industry groups as the Center for Consumer Freedom, made the point in a recent email to CattleNetwork.com that, “The industry needs both emotional and factual arguments when it comes to fighting the efforts of activists bent on the elimination of animal agriculture.”

No question about that.

Berman further noted that, “While it is appropriate for trade associations and companies to lead with emotional and factual arguments, [our] main role is to reduce the credibility of activist groups by pointing out their hypocrisy, junk science and twisted economic theories.”

His point was that groups such as the Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals typically receive favorable, often fawning, treatment in the media and thus the need for an industry “attack dog” to force reporters and news producers to stop providing activists a free ride on such controversial issues as climate change, environmental impact and health and nutrition.

Bad news from a good source

Here’s a great example. McClatchy-Tribune News Service, one of the most respected news organizations out there, recently let a PETA person spout off for some 700 words on why this summer’s drought could be mitigated by Americans going vegan.

“The nation is experiencing the worst drought in half a century, with nearly two-thirds of the continental U.S. suffering from drought conditions,” an article titled “Don’t Let the Drought Dry Up Your Wallet—Go Vegan” began. “The dry, hot weather is fueling wildfires, scorching lawns and sending food prices soaring—especially for people who eat meat, eggs and dairy products.If you’re concerned about your grocery bills—or your health—now would be a good time to start buying vegan foods instead of animal-based ones.”

That’s not news, that’s propaganda, and the reporter is hardly any kind of authority, being identified merely as a staff writer for PETA. McClatchy ought to be shamed for reprinting a pure polemic, and even worse, for allowing PETA to get away with repeating the kind of exaggerations that go far beyond merely shading the truth. For example:

  • Farmed animals are fed more than 70% of the grains grown in the United States
  • It takes 4.5 pounds of grain to make just 1 pound of chicken meat
  • The amount of feed needed to produce one 8-oz. steak would fill 50 bowls with cooked cereal
  • You can save more water by not eating 1 pound of meat than you can by not showering for six months

None of that is accurate, but when it’s presented in a hard news format by a respected news organization, it carries an underserved patina of authority.

Even as the PETA piece noted that USDA predicts beef, chicken, turkey and egg prices will rise by about 4% this year—hardly a devastating increase—the writer insists that “It’s cheaper, not to mention healthier and kinder, to eat grains and soybeans directly.”

Such a statement ignores the salient fact: If drought conditions have decimated crops, and thus spiking the price of grain and soy, how is it that replacing all of the animal protein currently consumed with corn and soy ends up being cheaper?

You’d think that would be logical question to address in a story purporting to offer analysis of the drought’s impact on food production.

The fact that the question was unasked and unanswered is testament to the problem that both mainstream trade groups and the very small universe of pro-industry organizations need to address.

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