OPINIONS vary widely when it comes to the best approach to dealing with activist groups. There's never really a right answer because of the never-ending scenarios that seem to arise.
That said, harken back to mid-February, when The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) held a press conference in Frankfort, Ky., to reveal undercover video and a series of allegations against Iron Maiden Farms. The press conference was a triple-whammy.
First, it was especially significant within the state because, just eight months prior, the Kentucky Livestock Coalition (KLC) had intentionally tried to open up the lines of communication.
KLC wanted to be proactive and invited Paul Shapiro of HSUS to Kentucky for an open forum. The intent was to facilitate a better understanding and drive a more effective dialog going forward. To that end, the forum seemed successful.
Regrettably, the good intentions weren't reciprocated by HSUS. The organization never made any attempt to communicate with KLC leadership prior to the press conference on the undercover video, which had to do with opposition to the hog farm's use of gestation crates and controlled-exposure practices to combat porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV). There was no attempt to attain any clarification or comment about the footage captured.
As a result, my communication with HSUS expressed how disturbing I found it that the group sent a message that it wanted to "work" with producers and animal agriculture but then turned around and attempted to pick them off. I added how "deception ultimately yields an absence of trust," and that certainly has "occurred in many states with many groups."
Second, there's the issue of sow gestation stalls themselves. Individual operations still using gestation stalls are targets of HSUS. That's a double standard, though.
HSUS publicly commends corporations for their efforts to phase out gestation stalls but holds individual operations to different guidelines. Apparently, those operations that have yet to transition to stalls are subject to undercover video infiltration (never mind if any animal abuse really exists).
Third, and perhaps most important, is the issue of making public accusations regarding the legality of the operation's practices. It's especially pertinent because HSUS's most damning claim against Iron Maiden had to do with the legality of feeding sows the intestines of piglets that died from PEDV — "piglet smoothies," HSUS dubbed them.
That claim is based on statute KRS 263.090 that covers requirements for the disposal of dead animals, which partially reads: "No uncooked bodies or parts thereof shall be fed to any livestock. This does not prohibit the sale of such products for pet food or for dogs, cats and animals in a zoo."
It's important to note that state officials have since concluded that the practice is not in violation of the law.
The statute cited by HSUS prohibits routine animal-to-animal feeding practices but does not apply to emergency inoculation procedures used to prevent the further spread of disease, e.g., PEDV. (Interestingly, though, HSUS overlooked the statute's provision outlining the legality of selling such products for consumption by the family pet.)
Bringing it full circle in recent weeks was the announcement of a nearly $16 million settlement to be paid by HSUS (and co-defendants) to Feld Entertainment, parent company of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The U.S. district court ruled that the case was "frivolous" and "groundless and unreasonable from its inception." The settlement also covers racketeering charges in the case.
All of this is important because whenever I've pressed HSUS about the first two issues, the legal claim was always the fallback, but that goes both ways. So, I inquired about the $16 million settlement. Specifically, I wanted to know more details regarding HSUS's claims that the settlement comes at zero cost to its donors.
My question was: "Despite claims to the contrary, there's clearly a cost to your donors. That comes through ongoing legal fees (attorneys never work for free), and your insurance premiums are now likely to go up."
Meanwhile, there's some question as to whether HSUS's litigation insurance will actually cover the settlement (and, if it does not, whether donors will indeed bear the cost).
I'm still awaiting a response.
*Dr. Nevil Speer serves as a private industry consultant. He is based in Bowling Green, Ky., and can be reached at [email protected]