Bringing Moos and Oinks Into the Food Debate

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the New York Times

Bringing Moos and Oinks Into the Food Debate

by
Kim Severson

WATKINS GLEN, NY -- The first farm animal Gene Baur ever snatched from a stockyard was a lamb he named Hilda.

That was 1986. She's now buried under a little tombstone near the center of Farm Sanctuary, 180 acres of vegan nirvana here in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. 0725 04

Back then, Mr. Baur was living in a school bus near a tofu factory in Pennsylvania and selling vegetarian hot dogs at Grateful Dead concerts to support his animal rescue operation.

Now, more than a thousand animals once destined for the slaughterhouse live here and on another Farm Sanctuary property in California. Farm Sanctuary has a $5.7 million budget, fed in part by a donor club named after his beloved Hilda. Supporters can sign up for a Farm Sanctuary MasterCard. A $200-a-seat gala dinner in Los Angeles this fall will feature Seitan Wellington and stars like Emily Deschanel and Forest Whitaker.

As Farm Sanctuary has grown, so too has its influence. Soon, due in part to the organization's work, veal calves and pregnant pigs in Arizona won't be kept in cages so tight they can't turn around. Eggs from cage-free hens have become so popular that there is a national shortage. A law in Chicago bans the sale of foie gras.

And earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court agreed to hear a case concerning common farming practices that a coalition led by Farm Sanctuary says are inhumane.

All of these developments reflect the maturation and sophistication of Mr. Baur and others in a network of animal activists who have more control over America's dinner table than ever before.

Among animal rights groups, the 1980s were considered the decade of grass-roots activism. The 1990s saw the rise of court actions and ballot initiatives. This decade is about building budgets, influencing policy and cultivating elected officials, all with a deliberate focus on livestock.

Farm Sanctuary and other groups still know how to make the most of gory slaughterhouse footage from hidden cameras. The animals they call "rescued" - some abandoned, some saved from natural disasters, some left for dead at slaughterhouses - clearly started life as someone else's property.

But in recent years they have adopted more subtle tactics, like holding stock in major food corporations, organizing nimble political campaigns and lobbying lawmakers.

While some groups, like the Animal Welfare Institute, work with ranchers to codify the best methods of raising animals for meat and eggs, most, like Farm Sanctuary and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, ultimately want people to stop using even wool and honey because they believe the products exploit living creatures.

But all of these believers have learned that with less stridency comes more respect and influence in food politics. So they no longer concentrate their energy on burning effigies of Colonel Sanders and stealing chickens. They don't demonize meat - with the exception of foie gras and veal - or the people who produce it. Instead, they use softer rhetoric, focusing on a campaign even committed carnivores can get behind: better conditions for farm animals.

In some ways, it's simply a matter of style.

"Instead of telling it like it is, we're learning to present things in a more moderate way," Mr. Baur said. "When it comes to this vegan ideal, that's an aspiration. Would I love everyone to be vegan? Yes. But we want to be respectful and not judgmental."

Certainly, concerns over health and food safety, and a growing interest in where food comes from among consumers and chefs, has made animal welfare an easier sell.

Technology has helped savvy activists deliver their message, too - specifically mass e-mail, easily concealed cameras and the ability to quickly distribute images online, like footage of slaughterhouses and the 2004 spoof "The Meatrix."

They have also learned to harness the power of celebrity in a tabloid culture, courting as spokespeople anyone famous who might have recently put down steak tartare in favor of vegetable carpaccio.

"I think there is a shift in public consciousness," said Bruce Friedrich, vice president of international grass-roots campaigns for PETA. "When Cameron Diaz learns that pigs are smarter than 3-year-olds and she's like, 'Oh my God, I'm eating my niece,' that has an impact."

The image makeover has been so successful that a 2006 survey of 5,000 people ages 13 to 24 showed that PETA was the nonprofit organization most would like to volunteer for, according to the market research firm Label Networks. The American Red Cross was second.

Beyond image polishing, animal rights groups also learned how to marshal resources and set up a classic "good-cop, bad-cop" dynamic to put farm animal welfare on legislative agendas. The Chicago foie gras ban was passed because the nation's largest animal rights groups coordinated their strategies, according to several who were involved. A Chicago alderman, Joe Moore, read an article about the fight over foie gras between the chefs Charlie Trotter and Rick Tramonto and proposed a ban. Word spread quickly among local and national animal rights groups, some of whom Mr. Moore invited to play a leading role.

The game was on. Farm Sanctuary put one of its lobbyists on the case. The Humane Society of the United States paid for large ads in the city's newspapers. The activists gave Mr. Moore a controversial video supposedly showing life inside a California foie gras operation made by the Animal Protection and Rescue League and PETA. He screened it at a city hearing.

PETA, whose over-the-top protests are considered divisive by some animal rights groups, stayed away on the day of the vote. The law is now being reconsidered, and PETA has unleashed its supporters.

PETA uses more than half of its $30 million budget to poke the meat and fast-food industry in the eye with shock-based educational campaigns. PETA protesters have handed out Unhappy Meals filled with bloody, dismembered toy animals and miniature KFC buckets filled with packets of fake blood and bones.

As factions in the animal rights movement continue to grow and splinter, sometimes using violence to make their point, the Humane Society, which is 30 years older than PETA, has emerged as the reasonable, wise big brother of the farm animal protection movement.

The arrival of Wayne Pacelle as head of the Humane Society in 2004 both turbo-charged the farm animal welfare movement and gave it a sheen of respectability.

As the organization's first vegan president, he quickly sharpened the group's focus to farm animals. He also absorbed smaller organizations, merging with the 180,000-member Doris Day Animal League and the Fund for Animals. The budget has jumped to $132 million from $75 million, Mr. Pacelle said.

Like PETA, the Humane Society has purchased enough stock in corporations like Tyson, Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Smithfield's to have the legal clout to introduce resolutions.

Mr. Friedrich said PETA had some early success pressuring stockholders when it was fighting to stop companies from testing soap and beauty products on animals. It then began buying stock in McDonald's, attending a shareholder's meeting for the first time in 1998.

Like Mr. Baur, Mr. Pacelle understands that not everyone is going to stop eating animals, so he focuses on what he calls the three R's: refinement of farming techniques, reducing meat consumption and replacement of animal products. That way, he hopes, the Humane Society tent is big enough to include both ardent meat eaters and hard-core vegans.

The broader-umbrella approach is working. Take the case of Wolfgang Puck. In March, he announced that he would stop serving foie gras and buy eggs only from chickens not confined to small cages. Veal, pork and poultry suppliers will have to abide by stricter standards, too.

For five years before the announcement, Mr. Baur's group had been pressuring Mr. Puck to change his meaty ways. Mr. Puck, in an interview in March, said that had nothing to do with his new policies. He simply came to the conclusion that better standards were the best thing for his customers, his food and the animals. But he did credit the Humane Society for his education.

Mr. Puck met Mr. Pacelle through Sharon Patrick, a branding consultant he had hired. Ms. Patrick, the former president of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, believed animal welfare could be an important component in her plan for Mr. Puck.

She brokered a meeting between the two men, and eight months later Mr. Puck presented his new animal welfare plan.

But farmers and corporations are only gingerly endorsing animal rights groups - if at all.

The flurry of corporate animal welfare policies that began in 1999 with McDonald's are simply sound corporate strategy, company representatives say. The genesis was likely the 1993 E. coli outbreak at Jack in the Box restaurants, which sickened hundreds and killed four children. Companies realized they had to get a better handle on where their meat was coming from.

And they say it had nothing to do with PETA.

"Ask them and they will tell you they are the sole responsible party for bringing all these changes, but I have yet to see one of their campaigns produce results where they affected the company in terms of customer traffic or profitability," said Denny Lynch, a spokesman for Wendy's.

Like other big fast food companies, Wendy's has been a target of animal activists' campaigns. Earlier this month, it announced a strengthened animal welfare policy.

Burger King executives say that at their company, too, change is driven by consumers, not activist pressure.

"If we think consumers are a little more engaged in this, then so are we," said Steve Grover, vice president for food safety, quality assurance and regulatory compliance. "I look at it like a hockey player. I want to be there before the puck gets there."

Cattle ranchers say pressure from PETA and Farm Sanctuary are not the reason they have started handling animals with more care. As the owners of Niman Ranch and Coleman Natural discovered, people are willing to pay more for meat from animals that are better cared for and whose origins can be traced from birth through processing.

"The groups that don't want us to eat any animals at all are so radical and off-the-wall that we don't even worry about them," said Scott Sell, the owner of Quail Ridge Ag and Livestock Services, a Georgia cattle company. "In our industry we are the original animal welfarists. We take care of the animals because they take care of us."

But Temple Grandin, the animal science expert from Colorado State University who first led McDonald's executives on a tour of their suppliers' slaughterhouses, believes that activists had plenty of impact on changes in how farm animals are cared for.

"Activist pressure starts it because heat softens steel," she said. But she also offered some friendly advice. "What the activists' groups have to be careful about is that you want to soften the steel and not vaporize it."

Activists have only slightly warmer relations with chefs, despite their recent fascination with farming.

For example, Mr. Trotter said animal welfare has become more important because American gastronomic consumers increasingly want to do right by the animals they eat.

"You don't just have to be a card-carrying PETA member anymore to go that route," he said in an e-mail message.

The chefs Mario Batali and Adam Perry Lang, along with the restaurateur Joe Bastianich, are creating a company called BBL Beef Brokers to produce humanely raised meat that is pampered from the farm to the slaughterhouse.

"From the chef's perspective it comes down to, 'Yeah, the steak looks good but why is it not performing?' " Mr. Perry Lang said. "It's because of how the animal was raised and handled. That's not animal rights, but it is animal welfare."

Although animal rights groups and chefs might agree that farm animals need to be treated with more care, one side wants to put those animals on the grill and the other wants to simply hang out with them.

The chasm between the two groups spilled over into the August edition of VegNews, a glossy magazine that is a mix of People and Real Simple for the meatless set. The magazine printed a publisher's note taking the international gastronomic group Slow Food to task for not including more vegetarians. The story carried the headline "The Developmentally Disabled Food Movement" and called the organization's leaders "human-centric food snobs."

Erika Lesser, executive director of Slow Food U.S.A., said that kind of jab keeps the two sides apart.

"There is a place at the Slow Food table for vegetarians, for omnivores, whatever your 'itarian' persuasion is, but I haven't met many vegetarians who are willing to sit at the table with omnivores," she said.

The gap between animal lovers and animal lovers who love to eat them is exactly what Mr. Baur, a man who eats noodles with margarine, soy sauce and brewer's yeast and has only barely heard of Chez Panisse, would like to close.

"We're not really in philosophical alignment," he said. "But I like to think we're in strategic alliance."

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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