HSUS, CEOs and Squeaky Wheels

My Generation

Watch this video: HSUS and friends chip away at brand after brand by linking the brand with animal cruelty.

Published on: July 24, 2012

Last week, I attended the Illinois Pork Producers visioning session. Among lots of discussion on feed supply (i.e., will there be any?) and gestation stalls and HSUS, they shared this video. It was released last week, only then it featured Costco. This week, the link is updated and takes you to the same video, but with Wal-Mart's name instead of Costco's. According to the Associated Press, Mercy for Animals had been preparing to release the video, which was shot in a sow barn at Minnesota-based Christensen Farms, a Costco supplier. Costco then gave the group a letter it sent to its pork suppliers last Tuesday, urging a phase out of the crates by 2022. The group supplied the letter to the AP.

To recap: Costco caved, announced vague aspiration plans, and the video with their name in it went away.

I am loathe to share the link to this video and give them more clicks. More views. But farmers need to see it. They need to see what they're up against. Count how many times they say "Wal-Mart" in the course of four minutes. Look at the wording of the web address: http://walmartcruelty.com. Look at how easy it is to share this video with your friends on Facebook, to Tweet it, or to comment on Wal-Mart's Facebook page. Look how easily you can click on a Wal-Mart executive's picture and go directly to an online petition, courtesy of change.org. Look how friendly Bob Barker is.

This is a carefully orchestrated attack on a major brand. And it's not the first time. It's how HSUS and Mercy for Animals operate: they haven't been able to affect change through legislation (at least not yet), they haven't been able to affect change on each farm (PETA's tried and failed for years on that front), and they haven't been able to force packers to require stall-free pork. But they can go directly to the retailer. They can splash a brand name all over farm videos designed to horrify consumers, and in doing so, create a link in the consumer's consciousness between a major brand and animal cruelty. They can become the squeaky wheel that a corner-office CEO has to fix. And fix fast.

Montgomery County hog producer Phil Borgic, in our upcoming cover story on gestation stalls in Illinois, makes the point that the average CEO has to protect his brand. His brand is his profit, and his job is to return profit to shareholders. When HSUS attacks the brand, the CEO has to respond.

So he or she issues a vague, aspirational statement stating their intention to move to stall-free pork sometime in the future. Sometimes, they talk with their packer supplier first; sometimes they don't. HSUS marks it as a win.

This is what the pork industry is up against.

How will agriculture respond? I can tell you one thing: as I sat in that meeting, when the video reached the part where workers were slamming piglets – what the industry calls "blunt force trauma" – and I was squirming in my seat and imagining how my Chicago mom friends would react, the elderly gentleman next to me said, "But that's the most humane thing you can do!" That may well be true, but in that moment I've never been more utterly aware of the vast distance between a pork producer and a pork consumer. We'll never convince a consumer that's humane. That ship has sailed, and videos like this are the winds pushing it away.