WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2016 - Animal welfare activists have moved beyond agitating for changes to sow and hen housing to taking on chicken producers, and aquaculture is in their sights next. The activists’ methods are familiar to the pork and egg industry: Publicizing practices they object to, and pressuring restaurant, food service and supermarkets to change production and slaughter processes.

In the meantime, activists hope that additional alternatives to meat, including synthetic or “cultured” meat, can make it to the market and be accepted by consumers who are reluctant to become vegetarians.

Those are some key takeaways from a first-of-its-kind “Future of Food” conference sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States. The conference kicked off Friday night with a keynote address from Princeton University’s highly controversial philosopher Peter Singer, a key founder of the modern animal rights movement because of his 1975 book, “Animal Liberation.”

Singer laid out three “problems” that he says must be addressed by reducing the consumption of animal products worldwide: animal suffering, greenhouse gas emissions, and the “stress” on farmland of producing animal feed. He also argued that all animals “should be able to live out their lives with a minimum of interference from us.”

Here’s a look at some of the major issues for the movement:

Broiler chickens. The animal rights movement is pushing for changes not just in farming practices but also in breeding. Activists have already had some success. Perdue Foods in June announced a series of commitments that include retrofitting 200 chicken houses with windows so that the health of those birds can be compared with birds in fully enclosed housing. And in September, Perdue announced that it would end the use of plastic nasal implants that are designed to prevent roosters from gaining access to hen feeders.

But activists are finding that it’s tougher to sell the public on why broiler production needs to change than it is to make a case to the public for cage-free eggs, which is a simpler message. “The broiler issue can be a little more complicated in terms of communicating with the public,” said Nathan Runkle, the founder and president of Mercy for Animals.

Fish. Singer and grassroots activists see aquaculture and the fishing industry as a future target, not just in fishing practices but in processing. Here again, the activists have a challenge in winning public support. “What we have seen with chickens has set the stage for work to be done on fish now,” says Runkle, who complains that the media has so far ignored the concerns his group has raised about fish supposedly being skinned alive.

“It’s difficult for people in general to sympathize with fish,” in part because fish “don’t have an emotive face,” Runkle said. “Fish have needs and they do suffer.” Leah Garces, executive director for Compassion in World Farming USA, said fish “don’t have facial expressions, they don’t scream. It’s hard for us to get it.”

Singer makes the same case against fish farming that he does against animal agriculture in general - that it requires the production of feed and, in the case of some fish, the harvesting and consumption of smaller fish. It’s a variation of the sustainability argument that surfaced in development of the 2015 federal dietary guidelines. Singer, who argues “fish feel pain, too,” says, “I don't think we have sustainable commercial fisheries, and even if we do, we dont have humane ways of killing (fish).”

Corporate policies. Activists have little hope that Congress will pass new restrictions on production or slaughter methods, so they will continue to rely on corporate purchasing policies to force changes on suppliers. One company that has been particularly receptive to pressure from activists is the Compass Group, the British food service giant whose subsidiaries include Bon Appetit Management and Restaurant Associates.

Susie Weintraub, executive vice president of strategic marketing and business excellence for Compass Group North America, said the company was using its “scale to tip the supply chain” away from meat consumption toward what she called a “plant-forward” diet. “We are seeing quantitative improvements in whole grain purchases and produce and we are reducing our red meat purchasing which leads to a reduction in red meat consumption,” she said.

Compass chefs are being encouraged to use “plant-based alternatives” to meat, but “not necessarily telling our customers that they’re eating less meat.”

Some activists are hopeful that synthetic meat, grown from stem cells, will catch on with consumers who reject vegetarianism. Bruce Friedrich, a former activist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals who runs The Good Food Institute to promote meat alternatives, argues that lab-grown meat can be appealing to consumers if its called “clean meat” and is promoted as originating in a “friendly neighborhood meat brewery.”

But Weintraub isn’t so sure that synthetic meat will ever have a large market among traditional consumers who like meat. “They eat meat, that’s what they do. …. You’re going to a have a lot of skeptics. I hate to say it, but you are.”

The states. Activists have been generally successful in preventing the enactment of “ag gag” laws aimed at stopping the release of secret video recordings inside livestock and poultry operations. The movement appears poised to score a victory Nov. 8 in Massachusetts, where residents will vote on a ballot measure that would bar the close confinement of sows, hens and veal calves. A WBUR poll last month showed the measure is favored 66 percent to 25 percent. The ban on hen cages and confinement crates would apply to food brought into the state as well as produced inside Massachusetts.

“The states represent an incredibly important venue for animal production generally and currently for farm animal welfare,” and Nancy Perry, senior vice president for government relations at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.


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