The Consequences of Cruelty

When activists use bad farm practices to pressure food retailers, who knows what will happen?

"We've lost sight of the real business risk here: an uninformed consumer driven by emotion and not science."

Now, if there's any way to get a weary reporter's attention, it's comments like that, made by two farmers who both asked to remain anonymous during an otherwise eye-popping dinner conversation at last fall's Farm Progress Show.  I respect these guys as leaders in the industry. What they had to say was a bit unnerving to say the least.

How did we get on to this topic? It started with some of the 'gotcha' undercover videos going viral across the internet. Go on and you can find dismayed game show host Bob Barker doing a voice over as undercover footage shows the 'shocking cruelty' of sows in crates, baby pigs euthanized by being slammed against concrete floors, castration "without painkillers" – you get the idea. (I don't recall ever using painkillers when my dad and I castrated baby pigs 40 years ago, but those were simpler days.)

The producers of these videos are smart. They know it won't do much good to point out one or two bad apples here or there. These animal activists linked the pig producer in the video to the farm's customer, Walmart, the world's biggest food retailer. 

The group, Mercy for Animals, has another video asking you to join the "Walmart cruelty tour ( because, as the earnest young talking head in the vid says, "Immobilizing mother pigs virtually their whole lives inside filthy metal gestation crates for nearly their entirely lives is out of step with American values." The group asks for petitions which are sent directly to the Walmart executive office.

You hope consumers believe, as many of us do, that a vast majority of producers don't allow any kind of cruel activity on farms. Even so, the war between food producer and food eater is getting nasty. Ag is trying to engage and own up to its weakest links, but it's easy for us to get defensive. Groups like U.S. Farm and Ranch Alliance throw millions into big time media campaigns to ease consumer fears. I'm not sure it's working.

While many of us have been tilting at EPA windmills and fussing about government regulators, your customer has been fuming over videos like this. Some of them express that anger by joining up with groups most of us would have considered wingnuts just a few years ago. 

Those folks now have an audience, and they are gathering signatures. Politicians are listening.

As the distrust grows, so do the chances of companies like Walmart reacting in a way that could significantly disrupt your business. "Farmers are trying to figure out how to not to get run over by the Walmart freight train," one farmer told me. "What do they want? As grain producers we are trying to avoid catastrophes."

Some farmers could go out of business, and maybe the handful of ones who allow workers to manhandle livestock should.

Most of us know those cruelty events are extremely rare. Even so, you're asked to be as transparent as possible. You're hearing conflicting messages: to diffuse the distrust, talk to consumers and let them see how you do business. Just make sure they like what they see.

As my farmer buddies point out, trying to engage in an emotional discussion over production practices and animal cruelty is like punching an invisible target. But turning your back on all this will never solve a thing.

Better to wade into the discomfort than deny there's a problem. What do you think?




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