Investigation #7: Better Left Unsaid

I was surprised this week to come across a full page Humane Society advertisement opposing the use of gestation crates in Feedstuffs, America’s leading agribusiness news source.  Historically, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and Feedstuffs haven’t exactly seen eye to eye.  In fact, previous articles and editorials have called HSUS’s concerns into question on numerous occasions.  I was even more surprised then to read a Feedstuffs editorial in which the paper defends its decision to include the Humane Society’s advertisement.  Regular readers understand that such a decision doesn’t sit well with a significant portion of the pro-gestation crate pork industry – including several regular Feedstuffs advertisers.

The main message of the HSUS advertisement is that consumer expectations are changing.  According to the add, “More than 60 major food companies–including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Costco, and Oscar Mayer–require an end to gestation crates.” In case you’re not in the know, sows on many industrial farms spend the majority of their pregnancy in crates that seriously restrict movement and social interaction.  During the last decade, gestation crates were considered an industrial norm.  The HSUS ad features a collage of quotes by current food industry leaders who posit that gestation crates are indeed a harmful and frowned upon practice of the past.  These leaders realize that it’s time for the industry to move toward more modernized group housing options.

While I was perfectly ready to congratulate Feedstuffs for both allowing an ad they obviously disagree with AND writing an editorial explaining why they did so, I actually lost respect for the paper as I read their editorial.  In the editorial, the authors admit that refusing the advertisement could “compromise the hard-earned respect for everything we do and everything we stand for at Feedstuffs,” and, that if they chose not to print it, it could “degrade our credibility.”  The editorial then questions whether or not this was HSUS’s objective all along and what it might mean if a source of “balance and objective news,” like Feedstuffs couldn’t see through it’s emotionally charged blinders to objectively accept any paying advertiser, including HSUS.

It’s unfortunate then that this worthy goal – to report balanced news based on available science – is undermined in the paper’s own editorial. While defending their decision, Feedstuffs reveals their stance saying that, “a publication may disagree with an organization’s or company’s sales pitch, the science behind the message or even its overall mission or business strategy.  However, that disagreement –or even that feeling of repugnance — is simply not reason enough to refuse the advertisement.”  They also indicate that, “it is not necessarily a fact-based message,” a frequent observation made by Feedstuffs reporters whenever industrial practices are widely scrutinized.  Because, of course, Feedstuff’s ability to sift one fact from another, in light of various “repugnant” views, is superior to anyone else’s.  Seriously…I can’t make this stuff up!

In my opinion, the editorial was a mistake.  As I read it, I thought of all of the Feedstuffs titles I’ve read over the years that were clearly biased and unbalanced.  One of the most consistently biased columns is called “Connecting Farm to Fork” in which, from my perspective, the paper uses an informative article format to advertise industrial products and ideas.  In this column, designed to help readers connect with their food sources, I have read articles titled: “Farmers prefer biotech crops,” “GM seeds called better for future of children, planet” “”Crunch Point” Needs GMOs” etc…  Even in the body of the paper it is sometimes difficult to tell if reporters are writing articles or advertisements with titles like “EPA:  Still a Threat in 2013…”  Are farmers really buying this news as balanced and unbiased?

Today we can use science to support just about anything.  Feedstuffs claims that its science is better than HSUS emotionally-charged science but Americans aren’t naive.  You can find science to support gestation stalls and science to support the banning of gestation stalls.  You can find science that will say that an America planted to a single monoculture is saving the environment (thank you Monsanto) even as other science is proving that this very science has wiped out hundreds of species that were once important biological controls (thank you environmentalists). I do not read Feedstuffs because I think it is a credible source of agricultural fact. In fact, sometimes I simply like to read Feedstuffs because the paper is so biased toward the food industry that it is very easy to read between the lines and connect the dots between funder and new scientific information. With regard to the editorial, I think Feedstuffs would have been better off letting HSUS speak for itself.  Instead they drew a bunch of attention to their rather questionable integrity.

From what I gather, most researchers who are not relying on industry to back their funding agree that crates are bad for pregnant sows.  Unfortunately, the entire debate is often presented out of context.  Group housing at high densities is also bad.  The industry and HSUS need to encourage density reduction along with crate reduction.  As I explain in America’s Two-Headed Pig, group housing may introduce unintended consequences for American sows if it doesn’t come with other management changes.

I look forward to the next Feedstuffs editorial in which Feedstuffs will undoubtedly defend its decision to include antibiotic growth promoter adverstisements now associated with a range of health issues amongst cattle and swine and other not-so-necessarily fact-based messages…

One thought on “Investigation #7: Better Left Unsaid

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