Food Forum: Stuck in the middle

Retailers need to take a cautious look at animal activists, says the author. 

By Rick Berman

There is a war going on between animal liberation groups and food producers. The latter sell animal protein. The former does not want any animals used for food consumption. Grocers are caught in the middle.rberman

Recently, animal liberation activists launched an aggressive campaign against the use of maternity pens to house pregnant pigs. Maternity pens are a housing option that provides for animal welfare (so say respected experts like the American Veterinary Medical Association) and allow for individual care and feeding of the animals. They also protect the pregnant sows from the bullying and injuries that occur in group housing with aggressive animals.

Naturally, hog farmers told animal liberation activists to get lost. It seems logical, as farmers are likely a bit more qualified to make these housing decisions than some urbanite activist. So now, these vegans, led by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), have turned to pressuring retailers.

There are a few things retailers should know if approached by these seemingly mild-mannered and professional activists. The Humane Society of the United States, which does not run a single pet shelter and only gives 1% of the money it raises to pet shelters, is essentially PETA by another name—and its agenda is every bit as radical as PETA’s.

Like PETA, HSUS is against meat, egg and dairy products. HSUS’s food policy director is a former PETA activist who designed a horrific campaign comparing animal farms to Nazi concentration camps. Its vice president for farm animal issues suggests that “eating meat causes animal cruelty,” and believes that “the meat industry equals systematic murder,” yet HSUS will not say that to retailers. Its activists will ask retailers to pressure their pork suppliers to phase out maternity pens over a few years. HSUS makes it seem like the easy, reasonable option.

They will claim that consumers want grocers to go this route. This is a false narrative. Recent public polling demonstrates that consumers feel differently. When told that farmers and veterinarians support the use of maternity pen housing, 86% of consumers either support maternity pens or simply do not care about the issue. By a similar margin, when it comes to animal well-being, consumers trust farmers and veterinarians over animal liberation activists.

And if consumers do not care, there is no marketing advantage to be gained by pressuring suppliers.

The purpose of the vegan activists’ campaign is to increase the cost of food that comes from animals, which in turn reduces the demand. In Europe, where animal liberation-backed regulations have recently gone into effect, egg prices skyrocketed 60%. The pork supply in the EU is expected to contract, with production falling by 18 billion pounds over 10 years.

Harm to producers also harms retailers and consumers. The only groups that benefit from this are HSUS, PETA and the other animal liberationists who want meat out of every supermarket deli.

Grocers did not ask to be put in this position, but the way forward is not to concede to the hostage-takers. The government does not negotiate with terrorists because it only encourages more terrorism. Similarly, siding with the PETA/HSUS types who are against meat, dairy and eggs will only encourage them to make you a target again in the future.

If HSUS comes calling, politely tell them that you will let farmers make on-farm decisions. For more information, visit

Rick Berman is president of Berman and Co., a Washington, D.C.-based public affairs firm specializing in research, communications and creative advertising.


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