Once again, the Humane Society of the United States is launching yet another round of attacks on so-called factory farming. Substitute “industrial farming,” “corporate farming”—whichever label you like. The message is the same: It’s all bad and it needs to be stopped.

In its latest campaign, spearheaded by a full-page ad that appeared last Sunday in the Des Moines Register newspaper, HSUS demands an end the use of battery cages in egg production. Fair enough—if the organization stopped there. Truthfully, the practice is controversial, and while enhancing efficiency, it certainly complicates the challenge of controlling pathogens such as salmonella, due to difficulties in providing proper sanitation inside the houses.

But as usual, HSUS can’t simply advocate for sensible, collaborative reform efforts. In a companion report titled, “Food Safety and Cage Egg production,” HSUS reveals its true colors and a far more sweeping agenda: Re-making all of agriculture, while eliminating altogether the practice of raising animals for food. The strategy is to demonize modern farming by selectively attacking certain aspects that can be painted as questionable, then demand wholesale changes that are simply unattainable as the “price” farmers must pay to be allowed to remain in business.

Here’s a sampling of the rhetoric HSUS employs in its latest report, followed by a more factual reading of the situation.

Charge: “Many current industrial farming practices threaten the health of Americans, including the feeding of millions of pounds of antibiotics to farm animals every year. Antibiotics are routinely fed to farm animals in part to counteract stressful, overcrowded, and contaminated conditions found on factory farms. Despite the widespread outcry against this practice from the public health community, agribusiness continues to engage in this dangerous practice.”
Facts: Subtherapeutic antibiotics are used to maintain health and enhance weight gain in livestock. Although pathogenic bacteria certainly develop resistance to routine antibiotic exposure, the real threat is in hospitals and medical settings, where second- and third-generation antibiotics uses to treat severe human infections create the conditions for the emergence of so-called “super bugs” that trigger deadly infections.

For example, here’s what the Mayo Clinic says about MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph aureus, a well-documented super bug): “MRSA infection is caused by a strain of staph bacteria that’s become resistant to the antibiotics commonly used to treat ordinary staph infections. Most MRSA infections occur in people who have been in hospitals or other health-care settings, such as nursing homes and dialysis centers [and] typically are associated with invasive procedures or devices, such as surgeries, intravenous tubing or artificial joints.”

Charge: “Other hazardous practices [in factory farming] include the cannibalistic feeding of slaughterhouse waste, blood and manure to farmed animals, blamed for the emergence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow disease.”
Facts: BSE involves a different disease mechanism from conventional infections, and was poorly understood during the initial years of the outbreak in England in the early 1990s. BSE is not transmitted animal-to-animal and there is no infectious agent that can be destroyed by the normal heat-treatment used to prepare livestock feed ingredients. Despite all the usual precautions, protein feed ingredients made from rendered meat and blood meal became vectors capable of spreading the brain-wasting prions from herd to herd. That is why the outbreak became epidemic in Europe.

Ironically, as was the case with foot-and-mouth disease, it was the small-scale, decentralized nature of the British beef industry, with thousands of small farmers and dairy operators buying, selling and exchanging animals and more importantly, keeping dairy cows—the primary type of infected bovine—in production years beyond the normal lifespan for cows in so-called industrial dairies in North America that exacerbated the outbreak. Had British dairy industry been more centralized, more “industrialized,” the incidence of BSE would likely have remained at about one-in-a-million, as it has been demonstrated in the United States.

Charge: “The slaughter for human consumption of ‘downer cows’ too sick or crippled to walk led to the largest meat recall in this country’s history.”
Fact: This refers to the case of Chino, Calif.-based Hallmark/Westland, the notorious plant where HSUS officials in 2008 secretly filmed videotape of workers dragging and prodding older, weakened dairy cows to get them to their feet so that they could be deemed fit for slaughter. While deplorable from an animal welfare standpoint—and absolutely unacceptable in terms of industry standards—they did not pose a food-safety threat. The idea that downer cattle are diseased stems from the overreaction of USDA to the initial BSE case in Washington state in 2003, when then-Secretary Ann Veneman banned all downer animals from the food supply under the guise of “an abundance of caution.” That ruling perpetuated the notion that animals too crippled to walk are somehow too diseased to eat.

Here’s the truth: Most downers are older, broken-down dairy cows shipped out to low-end packing plants where they are processed for commodity hamburger. Operations such as Hallmark, which specialized in processing older cows, are marginal at best, and although cows too weak to walk represent an intolerable welfare situation, they are rarely diseased, nor is the meat from such animals unfit to eat. USDA even officially admitted that there was only a minor risk of illness from eating any of the beef subject to the recall.

Moreover, most of the beef from that “largest meat recall in this country’s history” had already been consumed, since Hallmark extended to nominal recall back two years, to include all of its production since 2006. Were the company’s handling practices horrific? Absolutely. Was there a danger from the ground beef millions of people had eaten? Absolutely not.

But the takeaway message from campaigns such as this recent anti-egg attack by HSUS, which conflates issues in one sector of agriculture with alleged problems across all of farming, is that our entire food production system needs to be re-invented.

That’s a notion that cannot be ignored if those in agriculture want to maintain the support of the public and the policymakers.