Food

Pragmatism vs. Purity: How Animal Advocates Are Taking on the Meat Lobby—and Winning

In the fight to protect America's farm animals, our metric should be progress, not perfection.

woman feeding milk bottle to cute baby cow
Photo Credit: Nate Allred/Shutterstock

The Humane Society of the United States “has almost single-handedly forced pork producers to change their policies,” said Meatingplace magazine.

“The Humane Society of the United States is hitting the meat industry where it hurts,” wrote a reporter with Politico: “They're convincing cooks to reduce the amount of meat from their menu.”

“HSUS’ anti-meat crusade is taking its toll on the beef industry," said E-Ag News, “and convincing local kids to go green will only make matters worse.”

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These voices and so many others remind us that HSUS’ impact on animal agriculture is unambiguous. So why then are a small number of animal activists bashing us as “soft on the meat industry,” charging that HSUS is guilty of half measures and undermining the goals of animal protection?

These critics—though well-intentioned—are ambivalent about our efforts to empty the cages at factory farms, stop mutilation practices like cow tail-docking, or end the most inhumane methods of slaughter. They argue that our campaigns, which prevent the worst cruelties to farm animals, somehow assuage the conscience of meat eaters and divert them from serious thinking about more fundamental shifts in diets.

The only people who criticize HSUS more than these bloggers are the leaders of the meat industry, who spend millions annually to attack HSUS. They even admitted under deposition that they pose as animal activists online to post criticisms of HSUS.

That's right—the meat industry pays people to do what these animal advocates are doing.

Debates about tactics and ideology are nothing new in our field; there are fault lines on questions of animal testing and research, the status and behavior of pitbull-type dogs, and the management of wild horses and burros. But the debate about veganism is one of the most pitched.

The criticism is often personal and vitriolic, and occasionally aimed at me.

I have been campaigning against factory farming for three decades. I became a vegetarian in 1985, as a college sophomore, and a month later, after examining the practices of the conventional egg and dairy industries, I decided to leave animal products off my plate altogether. I’ve been vegan for 31 years.

In the ensuing years, I’ve had more than a few flareups with family and friends, my frustrations boiling to the surface when people I knew as otherwise serious-minded did not align their behavior with their beliefs. I lectured folks, even hectored a few; gave out fact sheets and books and even videos; invoked health, or environment, or animal cruelty arguments, or a combination of them. I’d take them shopping to show them how easy it is to eat a plant-based diet.

So I get how frustrated people feel, and I understand their sense of urgency about the treatment and slaughter of billions of animals. But after having a firsthand view of these one-on-one arguments and strategies, I have concluded that there is no single formula for winning people over. Each of us brings to the table too much history and habit. Every situation is sui generis.

If I knew the formula, I’d seize it. If I saw someone who’d cracked the code, I’d replicate it. I’m sure behavioral economics, human psychology and other disciplines will give us more insights in the years ahead about effectively influencing people on dietary choices. But I don’t think we’ll ever find a magic bullet. No matter how intensely you feel about diet, it’s very difficult to transfer that conviction, or impose it upon others. People take up the issues at their own pace and in their own fashion.

Yet try we do, and that’s one reason why the most zealous and doctrinaire of advocates are often cast as holier than thou, overbearing, rigid and orthodox. That’s the consequence when your moral certainty rubs up against someone else’s freedom to think and act as they wish.  

Do you ever win friends by scolding others? If you want to repel someone, there’s no better way than to act like a know-it-all, condemn them and show that you have all the answers and that others are fools or callous and heartless.  

We win friends by earning trust, by listening and responding to their views, by showing respect and tolerance. Why should we expect these principles not to apply when we are trying to win people over on the matter of eating with conscience?

On my book tour for The Humane Economy, a small group of people conducted a mild disruption of one of my talks. (They had clearly not read the book or listened to my preceding talk.) Before they spoke up, I told the audience—undoubtedly consisting of a fair number of meat eaters—that I’d been a long-time vegan. I described the conditions of factory farming. I told them about innovations in developing high-protein plant-based foods. I ended by suggesting that every person who abhors cruelty should think about his or her diet.

Still, in the question period, four or five people, after being called upon, read from prepared scripts about how immediate and strict veganism is the only way forward. Others booed them, when they realized the stunt was planned. They won no converts.

In social movements, the loudest, most ideologically rigid people typically don’t win many followers. It’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but more often than not, it has the opposite effect of alienating others. Those, on the other hand, who show understanding for other perspectives, and offer a clear-headed, workable framework for moving forward—well, they just might change a few minds and produce some results.

Rather than harass the most active farm animal defenders, these animal advocates would be wiser to go reach the mainstream, the folks with limited exposure to these ideas. They might step up their efforts to leaflet and spread the news in domains where there is no one giving a lecture. Or help market the products of vegan companies so more people learn about them and sample them. Speak up in church or school, join book clubs and organize a screening of a documentary that exposes the problems of animal agribusiness. Why spend your time bashing fellow animal advocates who are doing heavy lifting and who, as a consequence, are scorned by the meat lobby?

The HSUS has always worked on farm animal issues, but when I was elected president, I decided we would elevate the prominence of farm animal protection within the roster of issues we confront. I believed people of conscience would take action—in different ways, and with different ends, but do so in intentional ways.  

One of the first things we did was hire two remarkable farm animal advocates, Paul Shapiro and Josh Balk. We hired a top attorney, Jonathan Lovvorn, to head our litigation unit, which would also bring some serious firepower to bear on factory farms. We tapped Jennifer Fearing to help manage the Prop 2 ballot measure in California. We hired Mary Beth Sweetland, a veteran investigator, to run our undercover operations. We later added other great talent to work on farm animal protection, advocates like Kristie Middleton and Matt Prescott.

And how has it worked out? Prior to our renewed focus on the issue, there had been one anti-confinement ballot measure in U.S. history, launched in 1988 in Massachusetts. It won just 29 percent of the vote—a political flame-out in arguably the nation’s most liberal state. We were convinced that a highly strategic, well-funded campaign could turn that around, and in 2002, we got 55 percent of the vote on an anti-gestation crate campaign in Florida, winning the first-ever state restriction on extreme confinement.

In 2006, we won 62 percent of the votes in an election in Arizona to ban gestation crates and veal crates. And in 2008, we won our ballot measure in California, to ban crates and cages for veal calves, breeding sows, and laying hens, with 64 percent of the vote—attracting more votes than any prior ballot initiative ever. We proved we could win, and upend the thinking of politicians, corporate leaders and others who believed that people don’t care a whit about farm animals.

We won new anti-confinement policies in eight other states. When we failed to secure a federal standard for farm animals, we tried a different route, and have achieved stunning success. In the last 10 months, after persuading McDonald’s to agree to phase out cage confinement of laying hens, we have helped an astonishing 175 companies to make the same pledge. We’ve gotten nearly 100 companies—the biggest names in food retail in the United States, including Burger King, Kroger and Safeway—to make the same sort of commitment for hens.

The veal industry, shaken by our winning measure in Arizona and seeing that our campaign would be unstoppable, voluntarily agreed to phase out veal crates by 2017. The National Milk Producers Federation committed to phase out tail docking by the end of the same year.

Animal advocates who claim that these gains retard our progress are entitled to their opinions. But the facts show that they are mistaken.

Animal protection is not an abstraction, it’s not a philosophical exercise, and it’s not a matter of personal purity. It’s about animals, relieving their privation and suffering, and creating a new normal in society.

For the first time in the history of our movement, we are doing exactly that for farm animals. Factory farming persisted for 50 years before a single state banned extreme confinement. It wasn’t as if people, during that period of legislative stasis, were flocking to veganism. Adherence to a vegan diet topped out at 2 percent, with a sadly high rate of recidivism. Fortunately, many Americans, while not vegans, are cutting back on their meat consumption, which is sparing hundreds of millions of animals from factory farms and slaughter plants.

It’s no accident that the biggest gains in reducing meat consumption have been coincident with the biggest reform efforts to reduce the most suffering on factory farms. Nor it is coincidental that nations with stronger farm animal protection laws tend to have higher rates of flexitarianism and vegetarianism. I cannot tell you how many people have told me, after they saw our television ads in Florida against gestation crates or in California on battery cages that they decided right then and there to go vegetarian. Prick someone’s conscience on a single subject and you never know where it will lead.

In addition to tackling abusive practices, we have helped implement meat reduction programs in scores of school districts, including huge ones such as Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles. Just the policy in the L.A. school system alone, which serves 700,000 meals every weekday, spares vast numbers of animals from factory farms and slaughter plants. We publish an HSUS Guide to Meat-Free Meals, we have all sorts of videos (Meatless Monday, Free Chicken video, Kate Mara’s meat reduction video and more). We offer a free vegan recipe of the week and maintain a vegan recipe library. Every issue of The HSUS’s member magazine has a feature on vegan cooking and eating.

In many respects, the reduction initiative has been a quiet revolution—and sure, some people might shout louder than we do, or describe themselves as abolitionists, but their ardor is not an indicator of either success or progress. It’s about tangible results, not volume.

Let’s remember that Americans are still eating about 200 pounds of meat a year per person—and that doesn’t even include aquatic animals. As a tactical matter, it may help far more animals to reach the masses and get millions of people to reduce their consumption by 20 or 30 percent than to scold a far, far smaller number of near-vegetarians or vegetarians to go vegan, or to try to police the language of vegans so they give no purported comfort to meat eaters.

Our play is for the mainstream, to reach the millions of people who have yet to make any move at all, to help as many animals as possible, and to use proven tactics. We want people to be conscious of their food choices, whether they are adding more plant-based meals to their diet, or switching from factory farm products to those from more humanely raised animals.

After I became vegan, I was concerned about the leaders of animal groups sidestepping the issue of factory farming. I made the assumption that their reluctance to campaign on the issue came as a consequence of their own moral confusion and inconsistency. They were still eating factory farm meat and consuming battery cage eggs, so they were less than eager to urge people to make change. That moral inconsistency froze them in place.

But I am the first vegan CEO of the HSUS. I don’t resist action on the issue because I’m not personally willing to make adjustments in my lifestyle. I did that long ago. I make decisions based on information and experience. I hold these positions, as do the other members of our team, and we work on these campaigns because we think it’s the most effective path forward for animals. And frankly, we have the record to back it up.

We live in a very diverse nation. We want to talk with everybody, and we want people to take all sorts of steps, big and small. We want farmers involved with our cause, and we’ve worked with a few of them to create an HSUS National Animal Agriculture Advisory Council, consisting of working farmers and ranchers who oppose confinement practices and are speaking out against factory farming. They are some of the most powerful advocates we can have on our side, especially in Midwest states where the discussion about veganism is a closely circumscribed part of the civic conversation and more than a few politicians attack HSUS for even suggesting that there are problems in agriculture.

These ranchers may not share the same exact goals as every activist, but they have plenty in common, and they certainly don’t like the idea of tormenting animals in the way that’s become the norm for more than 90 percent of animals living on farms in our nation. I truly appreciate these forward-thinking and courageous reformers, and what they’re doing to curb factory farming.

There will never be one pathway for reform on food issues. The key to stimulating the conscience of millions of individuals does not come with one set of message-carriers or one set of messages. As animal advocates, we need to be impatient for change, but highly aware of the cultural complexities we confront. Our metric should be progress, not perfection. Ultimately, that will help the greatest number of animals caught up in America’s 60-year failed experiment with factory farming.

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