August 16, 2011 5:10 pm
US farming groups hit back at activists
By Alan Rappeport in New York
Big US farming groups are joining forces in a multimillion dollar
marketing campaign to respond to attacks by activists and small
farmers that accuse them of promoting unhealthy food and abusing
The outreach comes at a time of growing tension between industrial
agriculture groups and small farmers and activists who argue that
“factory farming” is inhumane to animals and produces food that leads
to obesity and illness.
The effort also coincides with the US food industry coming under
pressure to contain a salmonella outbreak this month that has been
linked to ground turkey processed by Cargill, the US meatpacker. The
US Centers for Disease Control said more than 100 people have been
affected by the outbreak, with one death.
As part of the push, a new organisation called the US Farmers and
Ranchers Alliance will hold the first of several town hall meetings in
September. The meeting, which will be streamed online, is part of a
multimedia effort to diffuse what the group calls myths about the
With 50 affiliates, the group is aiming to spend as much as $30m a
year on the campaign.
“Consumers are confused,” Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm
Bureau Federation, told the Financial Times. “There is a huge
knowledge gap out there and we want people to know that farmers and
ranchers are committed to providing healthy choices.”
Mr Stallman said that the industry had been unfairly vilified since
films, such as Food Inc and Farmageddon, have depicted the industry as
using genetically modified seeds, pumping animals full of hormones and
antibiotics to fatten them and confining them in cages with no light.
He argues that activist groups want the farmers to return to the days
when small family farms served local communities.
Small farming groups say that such a campaign is too little and too
Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface, an organic farm in Virginia, called
the USFRA campaign “laughable” and said that criticism of industrial
farmers is justified because they view the environment as a machine
rather than as something biological.
According to Mark Kastel, a director of The Cornucopia Institute,
which supports sustainable and organic agriculture, big farming and
ranching groups are fearful that the onslaught of negative publicity
is taking a financial toll.
“I think corporate agri-business is frightened about the marketplace
implications and concerned about more regulatory constraint,” Mr
Kastel, said. “They are afraid that the ugly stories out there are
tarnishing their reputation.”
Federal regulators have been considering ways to impose changes on the
farming industry and some states have already taken action. Last year,
farmers in Ohio agreed to restrict close confinement of hogs, hens and
calves. That followed similar moves in California and several other
states to limit extreme caging methods.
“More people are caring about how their food is produced, where it is
produced and by whom,” said Kathy Ozer, of the National Family Farm
Coalition. “People are asking questions about how their eggs are
raised and what conditions animals are facing.”
Mr Stallman said that his group will be working to clarify their
perceptions about how industrial farmers treat animals and the impact
of hormones and antibiotics on the food that they eat. He acknowledged
that, until now, the industry has been overly defensive and slow to
respond to its critics.
“We realised that we have not been part of the conversation and we
realise that is a mistake,” Mr Stallman said.