In 2017, the Animal Agriculture Alliance reaches a milestone: three decades of connecting the industry to consumers, engaging with  them and protecting the industry from extreme activist groups hell-bent on destroying animal agriculture. Much has changed over the decades, but the Alliance remains a respected, committed group that has the industry’s back when it comes to the destructive campaigns those groups launch. What follows is a portion of the conversation between Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief, and Kay Johnson Smith, president and CEO of the Alliance — additionally, Hanacek sat down for one-on-one interviews with Hannah Thompson-Weeman, Allyson Jones-Brimmer and Casey Whitaker, to dig into the strategies and tactics the Alliance has taken:


Hanacek: Although you were hired a few years after the founding of the Alliance, what were the main differences in the strategies and methods of the early years, before the advent of the Internet and other electronic forms of communication?

Johnson Smith: The Alliance’s original name was Animal Industry Foundation. It was organized in 1987 as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and we kept that name until about 2001, when the Animal Agriculture Alliance was adopted as the new name to better reflect our work and mission. … In the beginning, it was pre-Internet, pre-email: Communication was predominantly through letters, phone calls or in-person meetings. So the impact of the animal-rights groups then was really pretty minimal.

There were visionary people in our industry that said we need to engage the consumers so that they don’t just believe the misinformation of the activists’ groups. But at the time, [activist groups] really didn’t have a direct way to reach the public. Then as the Internet opened up in the 1990s, all of a sudden, a lot more access was created not only for those organizations but for us as well. The Alliance has always been on the cutting edge of technology and communications efforts.

Today — and we’ve done some consumer polling on this — people find the news from their friends, from Facebook, from the Internet, so we have dedicated a lot of time and resources to ensuring that we are actively engaging in those channels.

Hanacek: The Alliance has grown in terms of capabilities and staff, which is a good indication the activist threat has been taken seriously. As the Alliance has added staff members over the years, has the mission or strategy changed at all?

Johnson Smith: We’re a small but mighty team. There are four of us full-time, and we do have an amazing team right now. Every single person is extremely committed, extremely passionate and extremely talented and hardworking with a positive attitude. Our mission is ultimately the same, but we’re always seeking new opportunities to connect with consumers. We’ll continue to engage the media, bloggers and other food policy influencers to encourage retailers, restaurants and food companies to work with their suppliers rather than dictate policies down to them that aren’t science-based, [or] have a negative impact on animals, food safety, the price of food and, ultimately, consumers. 

Hanacek: I’m sure the Alliance has had several outcomes that would be considered victories, but what would you select as the biggest win for the Alliance thus far?

Johnson Smith: Yes, we’ve had many victories over the years, but a significant one that comes to mind from a few years back involved the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. … We realized this group was going to be writing reports about animal agriculture and making recommendations for government policy, and that it was just a group of individuals who predominantly had a position against large-scale animal agriculture.

During the two years that the organization was supposedly doing research and writing, we engaged very heavily with them, doing weekly meetings or conference calls. We organized tours of farms, provided resources and had experts speak to this group, because we wanted to ensure they had everything to create a balanced report, knowing the end result would likely still be a hit piece against animal ag.

The report came out in 2008, but because of our very in-depth engagement, we knew every move. They held a press conference to announce the extremely negative report, which was just as we anticipated — very negative toward modern agriculture. The Alliance was the lead spokesgroup on behalf of ag and did interviews with numerous national news companies, and the coverage was fairly balanced because we were prepared.

Five years later, the commission released an update, and gave itself a failing grade because nothing had been achieved. However, the hope was to bring this project back to life with a new timeframe. Again, we were prepared, and half an hour after the end of their press conference, we held our own press conference with industry experts. [Their report received] few stories in the media, and the few that existed were extremely balanced if not palpable fact.

Since then, the group has dissolved. The Alliance coordinated this entire effort, bringing the industry together as a coalition to develop strategies to respond. They spent millions of dollars to develop this commission and the negative report, and nothing came of it.

Hanacek: On a business level, what is the Alliance working to accomplish — beyond the strategic and tactical initiatives it is embarking upon in doing battle with the animal-rights activists?

Johnson Smith: One of our goals is to continue to grow our organization, because we’re one organization up against hundreds of extreme animal-rights organizations that are working every day, very strategically, with a lot of money, to try to put animal agriculture out of business.

I would challenge all stakeholders across every aspect of our industry to become part of our organization. As [our former Alliance president] said when the retailers first started getting interested in animal welfare issues many moons ago, unless [the retailers] plan to become the world’s largest salad bar chains, they need to recognize that they are partners with farmers, ranchers and meat companies, not activist groups that just dictate policies without understanding the impact that will have on the supply chain, the animals, food safety and affordability.

Hanacek: Certainly, the industry isn’t perfect, but many of the issues that activist groups skew and then attempt to use as leverage are backed by legitimate science, and many consumers would go on enjoying the products offered as they are produced. Yet, the activists become the loudest voices and seem to have an unbalanced amount of influence. Why is that, in your view?

Johnson Smith: I’ve asked this question of some of the biggest companies: If your customers aren’t asking for these policies and you’re not hearing it from the surveys you take of your customers, why are you adopting them? And I’ve been told on at least a couple of occasions: “Well, we try to think ahead of what we think our customers should want.”

But I guarantee it’s caused by fear from activists who say, “If you don’t do this, we’re going to promote a negative ad campaign.”

If consumers really wanted to purchase only cage-free eggs, for example, that’s what would be selling off the shelves and the market would be moved in that direction. Instead, we’re hearing and reading stories every day that cage-free eggs are not selling, or a very small percentage is sold.

So grocers end up having to break those cage-free eggs — which are much more expensive for them to buy — and use them in their prepared foods. There’s no added value to that.

Cage-free eggs still account for only about five percent of the retail market. And yet, there are now more than 200 companies that have made announcements that by 2020 or 2025, cage-free is all they will sell. But consumers aren’t asking for cage-free, and I don’t think they will be, and they will be frustrated when the price goes up. Additionally, retailers want to buy them but don’t want to pay more for it. So who ends up losing? You end up potentially driving farmers out of business because they can’t meet the demands of converting their farms and, ultimately, having a product with no clear advantages for the consumer and higher mortality for their birds. It makes no sense whatsoever.

Hanacek: What are the top vulnerabilities now? What does the Alliance believe the activists are chasing after in the near future?

Johnson Smith: Any kind of modification of the animal: dehorning, tail docking, castration. The public doesn’t understand, for example, when piglets are castrated, they’re very young, and there is no medicine, no analgesic that’s approved for food animals that could be used on them. The activists know that, but they also know a video of this procedure may be hard for the public to see [without proper context]. … Yes, it’s painful, but it’s temporary, and it’s done in the long run for their benefit. That’s a message the public needs to hear.

We identify emerging issues with our national and international network. We look at Europe and identify trends. The animal-rights activists are using Europe as a model, because they’ve had success there, and they’re trying to apply the same techniques and campaign on the same issues. They refer to Europe as being so far ahead on animal welfare, yet it’s all because of its heavy regulation. As a result, many European countries have driven out production agriculture and become nations of importers of food from other countries.

So that’s where the activists would like to go here and they use Europe as the standard. It’s really maddening because every segment of our industry has extremely vetted, scientifically-based animal-welfare guidelines but without the stagnation of regulation, which slows advancement and implementation of new and better systems and procedures based on discoveries through scientific research.

It’s not that the activists want to improve the lives of animals — that’s not the agenda at all. Their agenda is to eliminate animal agriculture, take meat, milk and eggs off of everybody’s plate. They know they are not going to do it overnight, because 97 percent of the public eat meat, milk and eggs. But they will never go away. These issues will never go away. We will win some battles, but the war will continue in perpetuity because, for certain people, this is a religion.

Hanacek: Is there a particular area in which the Alliance sees growing acceptance of the messages put forth by some of these activist groups?

Johnson Smith: We’ve seen a huge increase in engagement by animal-rights organizations with the faith-based community and churches, trying to get messages of animal rights into church sermons or into Christian publications. They play to the sense of compassion of these institutions and have worked diligently to infuse their messaging into churches of all denominations. We have commissioned research that will allow us to produce a toolkit to help people across our industry engage in those conversations in their own communities and their own churches.

We see this as a very critical issue because we’ve already experienced, in the last year, some mainstream churches considering adopting language that would be very disparaging to agriculture — encouraging people to not buy from “factory farms” or industrial farms or CAFOs, and only buy local — or to eliminate meat altogether from their diet.

Hanacek: What positives can the industry highlight to consumers and customers that could help in the battle against activists?

Johnson Smith: I think showcasing the technology that we use and how that benefits the animals, because the activists talk about “factory farms” as though there is a definition for factory farm. They give a negative impression, but if we talk about how these companies and farms spend millions of dollars on research and technology, all for the care and benefit of the animals, it’s a positive story, and the public would get it because technology is such a part of our life. The activists try to make technology a bad thing in farming, but why shouldn’t farmers have the most advanced technology? They are caring for life.

I know everyone’s kind of tired of hearing, “Share your story,” but all the research shows that Millennials like companies and industries with a story. The more people know about the people in our industry, the more they like us.

What I always remind people in our industry is that a majority of the public want the products you produce, they just want to feel good about having it and continuing to buy it. We need to help instill courage with the food companies, retailers and restaurants to do their homework on issues and work with their suppliers. Farmers and ranchers will grow whatever people want, but let’s make sure that these decisions will be positive for every party involved, including the animals.  NP