As they say, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear …. But they have a big budget and they’re going to try anyway.
They contacted Mark Kastel (Cornucopia), Kathy Ozer (National Family Farm Coalition) and Joel Salatin (Polyface Farms) for “balance” but I don’t think their publicity campaign is doing them any good, yet. – Lynn Buske
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 animals.
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 organization 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 agricultural industry.
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 late.
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.