Posted on July 12, 2012
In these days of YouTube and Facebook, it is hard for oppressive dictators anywhere in the world—whether in China, Iran or Zimbabwe—to successfully hide their gory doings. So, they seek to confuse the naive by seasoning their speeches with generous references to liberty, justice and the rule of law, while disparaging the human rights activists asking for liberty, justice and the rule of law. The meat industry today finds itself in a similar predicament. Threatened by the increasing success of animal advocates in exposing the worst abuses of the meat industry, they have had to start talking a lot about animal welfare while also disparaging the activists asking for improved animal welfare.
Let’s look at some data. Feedstuffs, a weekly newspaper of agribusiness, is probably the most prolific one within the industry trade press in terms of the number of news items and opinion pieces it publishes about the meat industry. A majority of the items they publish are articles on husbandry issues, financial reports on meat-oriented companies, or legislative matters such as the farm bill. Recently, however, the industry has had to sit up and take notice of the success of the animal advocates in raising concern about industry practices. The figure below considers over 40,000 pieces published in Feedstuffs over a 13-year period between 1999 and 2012 (these are the years for which a full-text search is available in a comprehensive database). The figure plots the percentage of these pieces that mention “animal rights” or “animal welfare”, and the percentage that mention some of the animal advocacy organizations. You can hover your mouse over any data point to see a pop-up giving you the exact number of articles.
Obviously, something changed in 2004-05 that started a more-or-less steady increase in the attention paid by the industry to animal advocates. The key catalyst was, without a doubt, the renewed focus by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) on factory farming. Not surprisingly, the HSUS is the most talked about animal advocacy group and, among animal advocates, Wayne Pacelle, the CEO and the President of the HSUS (with as many as 107 articles mentioning him between 2005-2012), is the most talked about individual. Paul Shapiro, the Vice-President of Farm Animal Protection at the HSUS, earns a mention in 36 articles starting in 2004.
I was curious if it is just the industry trade press that has started talking more about animal welfare or if this reflects a wider trend within the industry. So, I looked at two representative journals serving the meat industry in which agricultural scientists publish their research findings: Meat Science, the official journal of the American Meat Science Institute (published by Elsevier) and Poultry Science, published by the Poultry Science Association. Indeed, a mention of animal welfare in scientific articles is also on a steady rise with a vast variety of articles on welfare-related topics ranging from studies about the treatment of leg problems in chickens to studies about the impact of pre-slaughter stress on meat quality. In fact, as the figure below shows, the scientists are apparently a step ahead of the industry; while less than 7% of the trade press articles (in Feedstuffs) mention animal welfare or animal rights, as many as 12-14% of the articles in 2012 in the scientific literature today mention animal welfare (though, almost never animal rights).
So, yes, the evidence appears to suggest that the meat industry as a whole—and not just the trade press—is paying increasing attention to animal welfare. In the meat industry press, however, the attention is usually along the lines of how it is the farmers and the industry—and not the activists—who know what is best for animal welfare. But, at least we’ve got them talking animal welfare!
Note: This post was updated on July 15, 2012. This update added Mercy For Animals, Compassion Over Killing and Farm Sanctuary in the figure on items published in Feedstuffs.
Note: This post was updated on July 17, 2012. This update chose a different database (provided by a different company) that tracks pieces in periodicals in a more comprehensive manner. This changed the numbers plotted in the figure on items published in Feedstuffs, although the larger story of how the meat industry trade press is paying increasing attention to animal welfare remains the same.