Steve Kopperud’s business is to stay on top of issues affecting animal agriculture. As senior vice president of the Washington D.C.-based consulting firm Policy Directions, Kopperud has been on the inside track since moving to the nation’s capital in 1978.

From an early age, Kopperud learned agriculture’s important role from his father, a Cenex-Land O’Lakes corporate executive. After earning a journalism degree, he advanced his successful track record by serving as senior vice president of the American Feed Industry Association, which he continues to represent.

Having founded the Animal Industry Foundation in the late 1980s — now the Animal Agriculture Alliance — Kopperud is a recognized strategic legislative and communications expert. “My specialty is food and agriculture issues, and just about any issue that falls within that framework,” he explains.

Kopperud thrives in his Washington, D.C. base, which allows him to be directly involved with political issues affecting agriculture and food production. Referring to his political involvement, he admits, “You catch Potomac fever, and you never really lose it.”

Q: What’s your current role as it relates to the U.S. pork industry?

A: I assist the National Pork Producers Council’s Washington office with lobbying and issue management related to animal rights' attacks on pork production. I leverage NPPC’s producer education and quality assurance programs, along with its strong reputation on Capitol Hill, to make sure animal rights' legislative initiatives are seen for what they are — bad policy for producers and consumers.

Q: When did the animal rights movement begin?

A: The United States saw the issue emerge in the early 1980s. It stemmed from similar efforts against farming and ranching in the United Kingdom. The activists movement against animal biomedical research and the fur industry soon enveloped animal agriculture. By the mid-1980s, the growth of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals brought the animal rights movement to the front pages of American newspapers. 

Q: What animal rights group poses the biggest threat to pork production?

A: Most of the U.S. animal rights movement today has crystallized in the Humane Society of the United States’ agenda. It’s important to understand the HSUS’ apparent step-wise approach; it’s a strategy used widely in activist circles.

The group demands one thing this year, a little more next year, and so forth. The animal rights movement has refined an old activist strategy — “if you can’t legislate or regulate them out of business, then cost them out of business.”

In other words, it has proved over time to be too difficult for animal rights groups to convince the American public to walk away from their meat, milk and eggs. However, if the movement can force ongoing changes in production practices and sufficiently increase production costs, they can price those animal food products out of the marketplace.

Q: Do activists have the ability to reduce U.S. per capita pork consumption?

A: Depending on the extent of the changes and the production cost impact brought about by their efforts, the potential to reduce pork consumption definitely exists. However, despite some aggressive campaigns over the years by various animal rightists, we’ve not seen any reduction of meat, milk or egg consumption.

Still, I am concerned that if we don’t start addressing the American public about how their food is actually produced, versus the way animal rightists depict that process, the effect will be dramatic.

Q: Where do activist groups get their funding?

A: Most animal rights groups carry 501c3 tax status; it’s the same as most U.S. charities. They are able to advance strategies and images that attract attention and large contributions from liberal ideology groups and individuals.

If all you know about food-animal production practices in the United States comes from a PETA or HSUS brochure, you would likely write them a check, too. Their propaganda and portrayals of animal production are so emotional that any compassionate person would fall for it.

Q: What can pork producers do to minimize the activists’ impact?

A: The bottom line is we have to start talking to the public.

Activist groups rely on the fact that producers don’t make the effort to promote themselves. The pork industry needs to build alliances with other producer groups. There needs to be a consistent message from all components of food-animal production that reinforces each group’s message.

The public wants assurance from farmers that what they assume and expect is happening at the farm is actually occurring. We haven’t provided that perspective well enough yet. We need to use the same expertise that developed “Pork: The other white meat” campaign to promote the producer. If we use that same creativity, the activists’ movement would be a much smaller issue.

Q: Can producers negotiate with animal rightists?

A: No. There’s no recognizable expertise on pork production within the animal rights movement. For them, it is a perception issue. They simply don’t like what they see in animal agriculture, and we’re not going to change that fact. That, in part, is why so-called “market-based” decision making that yields to activists’ demands is short-sighted.

You can’t assume you will outlast the activists or make them go away.

Q: What kind of production changes might be necessary?

A: One of the things I find most disturbing is when the industry makes production changes just because it is perceived as the politically correct thing to do or simply for public relations purposes. Any production change must be based on sound animal husbandry principles and scientifically proven to benefit the animal as well as the producer. Making production changes as a P.R. band-aid is unwise.

Q: What roles do processors and retailers play in this topic?

A: There’s a growing gap between processors and producers. That’s because the production side has not adequately demonstrated the many and varied production complexities to processors and retailers.

Processors, retailers and producers must stand together and not give in to activists today in hopes that they can fight off the next attack tomorrow.

Q: Should pork producers speak for themselves or use a spokesperson?

A: Producers have to speak on their own behalf. They are the single most credible source when it comes to production practices. Granted, it’s a role that does not come naturally to producers, but they need to get used to it because it will be more and more necessary.

The message need not be complex. It can be simple, such as “good food delivered by good, professional people.” The priority for the next five years must be to promote the producer as much as the product.

Q: Do you have any final words of advice to offer?

A: Pork producers should be applauded for including animal welfare components into the Pork Quality Assurance Plus program. But consumers have to be informed of this progressive step.

We do need to take consumers’ concerns seriously. Ultimately, we spend too much time rebutting activists’ accusations and not enough time educating the general public.

With so much attention being focused on the animal, it’s important that the producer doesn’t get lost in the debate. It’s a matter of survival; the producer must draw a line in the sand.