A few weeks ago, I was talking with Elizabeth Weise, a reporter for USA Today, about food safety issues, specifically the advent of pre-harvest controls and how animal ag would react.  Not well, I told her, but “There are two companies that could make this happen in a second, McDonalds and Walmart. If either decides to require it, the industry will turn around on a dime."

The reasoning is simple and the thought process has been shared with me by industry execs several times.  What the USDA or the FDA might decree is often seen as a needless and expensive incursion into doing business, an impediment to be resisted at all costs (pun unfortunately intended).  What McDonald’s or Walmart will decree is a necessary cost of doing business.

Do you want to sell to the two biggest players in the food business?  Follow their rules or go away.  Fair enough.

Which brings me to the recent Mercy for Animals (MFA) video of alleged animal cruelty at Sparboe Farms.  You can see the ABC News 20/20 coverage which includes the video here.  There should be two things that are no surprise here:
(1) An animal activist group got an undercover video of animal cruelty and engineered an embarrassing expose, and
(2) the ‘caught on tape’ company execs expressed shock and disavowed the activity immediately.

Disavowing such practices immediately is a noble deed that does no good, by the way.  The damage has already been done; just ask anybody who has already been caught in that nasty little net.  Those stellar performers that ran the Decosta egg facilities have now thankfully exited the business

Nathan Runkle, MFA Executive Director, is a man who doesn’t hide his intent.  He’s out to get you.  When I interviewed him about the notorious E6 video last April (see Jolley: Five Minutes with Nathan Runkle Executive Director of Mercy for Animals) he said, “It’s true that without exception, each time a Mercy for Animals investigator enters a factory farm, hatchery, or slaughterhouse they uncover appalling abuses. E6 is the 15th facility MFA has investigated since our inception.”

Let me ask two questions:
(1) How many more of these high shock value tapes will the animal agriculture industry have to endure before we institute far more serious controls than are in place now, and
(2) how much longer can we not do something before those necessary steps are forced on us by a government entity bowing to public pressure?

A Reinvented Egg McMuffin
A CNN news story about the Sparboe Farms video said “McDonald's and Target dropped an egg supplier this week after an activist group released disturbing video showing what it says shows animal cruelty at three of the company's barns.” 

Joining the list are supermarket operators Lund’s and Byerlys in Minnesota and Walmart’s little brother, Sam’s Club. In a remarkably timely business decision, Walmart dropped the fifth largest egg producer as a supplier several weeks ago.

McDonald’s and Walmart go face-to-face with the buying public millions of times daily, an advantage that we don’t enjoy.  They’ve developed a much better understanding of the fickleness of the public and how they can be swayed by emotional arguments than anyone in animal ag.  And they know that when the public ‘sways’ in one direction, they take their money with them. 

Because these two huge enterprises are in a cut throat battle for market share, they are particularly sensitive to issues that can cost them even a tenth of a share point.  It doesn’t take too many cards and letters, emails and tweets, for them to take stock of an issue and make an immediate change.

For example, it took McDonald’s just two days to abandon its longtime relationship with Sparboe Farms while the USDA mulled over the “Big 6” STECs for almost two years after the problem was brought to their attention by Bill Marler and Food Safety News. Even today, just 4 short months away from the target date for expanded testing, the last “t” on that project has yet to be crossed.

CNN quoted McDonald's Vice President of Sustainability, Bob Langert, from a prepared statement. "Regarding the undercover videos, the behavior on tape is disturbing and completely unacceptable. McDonald's wants to assure our customers that we demand humane treatment of animals by our suppliers. We take this responsibility -- along with our customers' trust -- very seriously. It's important to note that the most alarming actions on video did not occur at Sparboe's Vincent, Iowa, facility that supplies McDonald's. Nonetheless, our extremely high standards for our suppliers prohibit this conduct."

And the loss of the McDonald’s business was far more extreme than it looks.  McDonald's got those eggs from Cargill, Inc., which also said it was suspending Sparboe as a supplier.  The money Sparboe saved by not implementing far more serious sanitation, inspection and personnel training programs all of a sudden look like chump change compared to what they are going to lose in the next few years.

Sparboe was Warned by the FDA
Sparboe management should have expected something bad was about to happen.  Only a few days before the MFA bomb, the FDA sent them a stern warning letter about "serious violations" after visiting the companies' production facilities. FDA officials cited them for “failure to have and implement a written Salmonella Enteritidis prevention plan and failure to prevent stray poultry, wild birds, cats and other animals from entering poultry houses.”

The warning letter, coming just a scant year after nearby Hillandale Farms and Wright County Eggs along with the entire egg industry were slammed by a Salmonella-induced recall of a half billion eggs, should deliver a Joe Frasier-like jolt to the exposed jaw of animal agriculture.  To put it another way, there is a big animal welfare storm brewing and we’ve got a high-tension power line hanging low over the barn.

If you don’t have a serious animal welfare program in place, get one immediately.  Call Dr. Temple Grandin or Dr. Kurt Vogel at Colorado State University or Erika Voogd of Voogd Consulting, Inc. in Chicago for help.  In Canada, get in touch with Dr. Ian Duncan Chair of Global Animal Partnership’s Welfare and Farming Advisory Committee, Emeritus Chair in Animal Welfare at the University of Guelph, and President of the Animal Welfare Foundation of Canada. 

If you have a plan in place, make sure it isn’t just a dusty document sitting on a shelf somewhere, probably right next to your crisis management plan.  Every employee must be well-trained in acceptable animal handling procedures.  Every manager of every facility must take the time to frequently ‘walk about’ the place to make absolutely sure the rules are being strictly observed.  Don’t have time to take a stroll? Grandin strongly suggests video cams at every potential crisis point in the yard.

Run the place like that next new hire is a ‘plant’ sent to get you from HSUS, PETA or MFA.

And remember, the death knell probably won’t come from the feds but from public pressure forcing McDonald’s, Walmart or your largest customer to make a marketing decision that will put you out of business.