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Are Shoppers Ready to Believe the Worst on Animal Care?

Are Shoppers Ready to Believe the Worst on Animal Care?

Animal rights activism has long been viewed as a bit of a fringe movement, with insufficient mainstream support to matter much to supermarket retailers, or their meat and poultry suppliers. The Humane Society of the United States, however, has certainly been changing that outlook.

HSUS is a very well-funded charity with a base of 10 million members, more than 400 staff members and $200 million in net assets, according to the organization’s 2006 annual report, the most recent one published. Its "litigation SWAT team" is led by 12 full-time attorneys and supplemented with more than 100 lawyers working on a pro bono basis.

It has an impressive ground game, too. Most recently, by mobilizing a group of 4,000 volunteers, the organization collected almost 800,000 petition signatures to place their "Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act" on California’s 2008 presidential election ballot. Similar ballot initiative efforts led by HSUS resulted in Florida banning the use of sow gestation crates by pork producers in 2002. Arizona voters did the same thing in 2006. In addition to banning gestation crates, this California measure will likely force the state’s entire egg industry to go cage-free by 2015.

Think what you will of HSUS, but definitely think about them. Their undercover video filmed at the Hallmark/Westland meat packing plant in Chino, Calif., led to the largest beef recall in U.S. history, and amply demonstrated that the group has developed a knack for sparking consumer outrage and getting its arguments in front of congressional committees quickly.

In his Feb. 28 Senate testimony on the Hallmark/Westland case, J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, described the activity at the plant as a shocking departure from the industry norm, and asked how HSUS "could allow this abuse to continue for almost four months, while it edited its video for release to The Washington Post?"

It’s a legitimate question, but everyone knows the answer already. HSUS waited to get enough footage to make a horrific YouTube clip. They waited to get enough shots of downer cattle being mistreated, in particular, because putting those cows in the food supply is already illegal. The resulting video proliferated across the Internet, shocked consumers and forced the USDA’s hand.

If it’s any consolation, though, consumers are getting past the point of staying shocked for long. In 2004, when Tommy Thompson resigned from his post as Secretary of Health and Human Services, he said, "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why the terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do."

In the intervening years, the public has started to understand what he meant by that comment. Our food inspection agencies are underfunded and, in many cases, dysfunctional. Most consumers still understand that the food supply is overwhelmingly safe. But the constant stream of recalls, illness outbreaks and import contamination scares in recent years has made everyone aware that there are serious problems to be addressed in our food system. Unfortunately, that produces an audience that is ripe for believing the very worst about farm animal care, too.