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Animal protectionists are winning the agriculture public relations battle said former Congressman Charlie Stenholm at House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry hearings in May.
The recently defeated Texan and former Ranking Democrat on the Ag Committee should know. He was testifying as a paid lobbyist for the horse slaughter industry.
Other public relations challenged industries represented were United Egg Producers, the National Pork Producers Council, Sonoma Foie Gras and the National Association for Biomedical Research.
Also represented were the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Milk Producers Federation, the American Quarter Horse Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and public relations firm, Center for Consumer Freedom.
The hearing on animal welfare and agriculture was scheduled by Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), the new House Ag Committee Chairman, at the urging of the seven million member Humane Society of the United States. Except for a meeting last year about horse slaughter, the Subcommittee hasn’t met over a farm animal issue since 1989 when it looked at veal calf treatment.
In a May 28 editorial, the New York Times accused House and Senate Agriculture committees of "cozy ties to big agriculture."
On the plate, pun intended, were discussions of gestation crates–outlawed in Florida and Arizona and dropped by pork giant Smithfield foods–veal crates, battery cages and other confinement systems and a provision to include poultry under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act instead of the Poultry Products Inspection Act which only requires the "good commercial practices in the slaughter of poultry" that KFC has popularized.
But exchanges soon devolved into veracity bowls.
Not only did pork industry representatives dispute HSUS President Wayne Pacelle’s claim that a mad cow like disease could afflict pigs, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), ranking Republican on the Ag Committee and its former Chairman bluntly labeled Pacelle’s charge that mad cow disease has already gotten into the US beef supply, "Wrong."
But former Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman confirmed to CNN on Dec. 23, 2003 that meat from a US cow found to have mad cow disease had "gone into other processing plants from the initial slaughter plant." And on January 3 the San Francisco Chronicle reported that 11 restaurants in nine California counties had served the meat to unwitting diners. Identities of the food outlets were protected thanks to a state law.
Both horse slaughter lobbyist Charlie Stenholm and Rep. Goodlatte had blocked a ban on processing downers for human consumption earlier in 2003, assuring the public there was no health risk.
Mad cow is an animal protection issue because its spread is facilitated by processing sick and crippled downer cattle for human food, often dragged to slaughter say activists.
While some lawmakers said they saw no need for the Ag Committee hearings–"producers are vigorously addressing animal welfare issues," Subcommittee Chairman Leonard Boswell (D-Ia) assured the group; "Farmers and ranchers, not activists, should be dictating animal husbandry practices," agreed Ranking Member Robin Hayes (R-NC)–others impugned animal protectionists.
Rep. Steve King (R-Ia), known for taking pro-cockfighting and dog fighting positions, felt compelled to declare his favorite meal "a steak and a beer" and blame former NBA player Bill Walton’s knee problems on lack of meat.
And then there was David Martosko of the Center for Consumer Freedom.
"Congress could require U.S. farmers to supply every pig, chicken, duck, and cow with private rooms, daily rubdowns, video iPods, and organic meals catered by Wolfgang Puck," said the Director of Research for the controversial group which defends alcohol, junk food and even cigarettes against legislative restrictions in a kind of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend arrangement. "But even this wouldn’t satisfy activists who actually believe farm animals have the ‘right’ not to be eaten."
[Another the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend group is the Animal Agriculture Alliance whose Executive Vice President, Kay Johnson, told North American Agricultural Journalists in April, "improvements in animal welfare should be based on reason, science and experience, not on the opinions of activists who have absolutely no vested interest in farm animals." ("Your honor, the witness has no vested interest in the property!!")]
But Dan Murphy of meatingplace hopes Martosko’s discrediting of activists doesn’t "represent the industry’s primary strategy."
"When an industry, or a company, is forced to be reactive and continually defend its business model, the chance of successfully moving the needle on public acceptance or understanding is minimal," he writes on the cattlenetwork website. Especially because food consumers "expect the companies who ask for their business to make reasonable changes."
And public sentiment, unlike the Ag Committee hearings, won’t likely die in committee.
MARTHA ROSENBERG is a Staff Cartoonist at the Evanston Roundtable. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Providence Journal. Arizona Republic, New Orleans Times-Picayune and other newspapers. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org