Long ago the United States became a litigious society. Today, activist groups are making legal wrangling part of their standard-operating procedures.

In 2001, a variety of activists groups renewed their commitment to fighting pork production, and you can expect the same for 2002.

Organization has always been the activists’ strong point. A once fragmented network of groups now supports each other regardless of the issue at hand. Whether the cause addresses food safety, ground water or animal handling, a who’s-who list of environmental, animal rights, religious, rural community, public interest and even some farm groups line up behind it. That’s because the common cause is to “end factory farms.” After that, they splinter off into any number of agendas.

Tactics have tended to be their weak point, but that’s changing since they’ve decided legislation, regulation and the courts may be the course of least resistance. Even if they don’t win, it’s a strategy that can tie up a lot of the industry’s time, effort and money. It’s also a strategy that wears down opponents.

Timing also is on the activists’ side as each year, more of the U.S. public move further away from the farm.

So what can you expect in the coming year?

  • The Waterkeeper Alliance president and founder, Robert Kennedy, Jr., states that a factory hog farm is an “enterprise that produces more manure than it can spread safely as fertilizer.” (Where would that put your operation?)

    WKA took its first shots at Smithfield Foods’ operations in North Carolina and Virginia. Then it took aim at a Tyson poultry facility in Arkansas. Last month, WKA took its threats on the road to Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. Kennedy told government officials, producers and others to crack down on pork operations or WKA will; and that action will include suing producers.

    Calling pork production an “outlaw” industry, charging it with racketeering and citing the Clean Water Act are WKA’s focal points.

    Among WKA’s supporters you will find Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (a dominant opponent of the national pork checkoff).

  • Animal rights groups, of which the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals leads the list, found a spark during the past 18 months. It started with well-placed pressure on McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s, which caused the fast-food trio to establish animal-handling standards for suppliers.

    PETA has put Domino’s, Papa John’s and Little Caesars on notice to do the same. The national pizza chains are in various stages of addressing the issue. Pizza Hut was not included because its parent company was already working with PETA.

    Drunk with success, PETA has petitioned USDA to enforce the federal Humane Slaughter Act on “animals handled and killed on factory farms.” According to the act, the slaughtering of livestock and the handling of livestock in connection with slaughter must be carried out by humane methods. PETA argues that because farm animals raised for food are done so “in connection with slaughter” the Humane Slaughter Act should apply to the farm as well.

    PETA may not get very far with this petition, but there will be more legal and legislative jockeying in the future.

  • Another, action came last fall from a coalition of the aforementioned activist groups. It targets antibiotics used in farm-animal production. The coalition launched the “Keep Antibiotics Working” campaign. It’s designed to “educate the public” and motivate consumers to contact to their congressmen about the issue. The coalition also plans to work through the legislative process to advance its cause.

There are many more examples of other activists’ attempts to dictate how you do business – and for some, to see that your business ultimately ends.

There are two patterns worth noting: 1) activist groups with seemingly different issues are joining forces; 2) they are focusing on the legal, legislative and regulatory arena to achieve their goals – or at the very least, disrupt your business.

File this information under the “you-need-to-know” column, and be prepared to support your industry’s action.