February 25, 2019

Factory farmers continue to leverage the power of government to quash dissent and innovation

Attempts to bar vegan food processors from displaying the words “milk” or “meat” on their products are just the latest examples

Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law says that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

What’s true in physics is certainly true in social reform movements, including animal protection. During my years of activism, I’ve seen the factory-farming lobby push back in dramatic ways when there is a political offensive or a product innovation that threatens to upend, even in a small way, their business plans. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers’ Council, and others of their ilk have not hesitated to use the power of the state to suppress dissent, and tip the scales in their favor when it comes to competition in the marketplace.

With the proliferation of plant-based milks — almond, soy, coconut, oat, and others — there is a movement by the dairy industry to forbid the use of the word “milk” on packaging or marketing materials unless the product was the secretion of a cow. They call their movement “dairy pride” and they are concerned that plant-based milk products are capturing an increasingly large share of total milk sales — 13 percent and rising. In a word, the dairy industry is seeking to upend the promotions of other agricultural businesses competing in the marketplace.

Few consumers are under any illusion about where these milk products come from. People understand the difference between a cow and a nut or a grain. They know that these commodities are being processed in a way to make a familiar-looking fluid, whether pouring the product on cereal or into a latte. It’s clear to any alert consumer that the political attempts for the dairy industry to lay claim to the “milk” designation are a brazen attempt to muscle the plant-based products out of the dairy case, which is a regular stop for consumers.

There is a preemptive effort to prevent the meat case from being diversified, too. State lawmakers, pushed by the cattlemen’s associations and other meat industry trade groups, are pushing state “meat-muzzle” laws in an array of states to forbid companies selling plant-based burgers from using the word “meat.” They don’t like the traction that companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, and others are making in offering products with the look and taste of meat but that don’t require killing an animal.

When it comes to cultured or “clean meat,” the cattlemen’s association execs are as nervous as a newborn calf. Clean meat is an emerging bio-technology that uses pig, cow, or chicken cells to grow animal tissue in a medium. Memphis Meats, Just, and a host of other companies are taking what sounded a few years ago like a futuristic sci-fi idea and attracting major investors, and getting much closer to selling this kind of animal meat in the marketplace. And the meat lobby is so concerned about clean meat, it’s already filing state bills to prohibit it from being called what it is—meat—and in the case of Washington state, there’s even a bill that would simply bar the sale of clean meat altogether.

It is expected to be exactly the kind of meat that the cattlemen and pig producers sell, except that it requires no slaughterhouse lines to separate the fatty tissue from the ribs, hooves, hide, internal organs, or the brains of a full-bodied cow, pig, or chicken. The meat won’t be laced with hormones or antibiotics and, in the end, won’t require that a healthy animal be killed. And clean meat will require but a fraction of the food and water inputs of a conventionally reared animal. Tissue won’t require grazing on public lands at subsidized rates, it won’t produce manure by stream beds, and it won’t be vulnerable to predators, who are often killed to make way for livestock on our public lands.

Remember, this is the same industry that passed a raft of “ag gag” laws to forbid citizens from taking pictures of animals at factory farms or slaughterhouses and to bar animal advocates from getting jobs at those kinds of businesses. Fortunately, thanks to the outstanding work of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, several of these statutes — including measures in Iowa, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming — have been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional.

The agribusiness industry has also tried to use the power of the state to bar any future regulation of agriculture. Their so-called “right to farm” measures served up in a number of states seek to amend the state constitution to forbid future regulations or state laws to give animals space to move, to impose limits on manure loads dumped into waterways, or to restrict anti-competitive practices that would hurt small farmers. Fortunately, in one of the strongest agriculture states in the nation, Oklahoma voters crushed a “right to farm” measure (State Question 777) there by more than 20 percentage points in November 2016. That sent a message to industry that it had badly overreached.

And to conduct its bevy of brazen political campaigns, let’s remember that the animal agriculture trade groups use hundreds of millions of “check-off” dollars a year for marketing and political campaigns financed in part by family farmers who want nothing to do with the maneuverings of major industrialized Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The dairy industry spends $350 million a year for its efforts through its check-off program, the cattle industry gets upwards of $80 million, and the pig industry about the same. Many of the trade groups for these industries pay their staff salaries with this money. Family farmers across the nation believe that their own dollars are financing their own demise. Let’s remember that since check-off programs started a few short decades ago, the pig industry has lost 91 percent of its farmers, the dairy industry 90 percent, and the cattle industry half its people.

These trade groups are using government to tip the scales in their favor. Yet so many of these agriculture trade groups trot out the line that government should stay out of their lives when it comes even to minimal humane treatment standards. But when it suits them, they have no compunction about trotting out the bromide that government is overreaching and that the government should even institute rules so that their competitors cannot use commonly understood vocabulary on their packaging, or should even ban its potential competition from the marketplace altogether.

When it comes to the meat industry lobby, let the buyer beware not just of their products but of their tactics and their political treachery.

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