The HBO documentary (“Death on a Factory Farm”) came and went last month, without a tsunami of fallout. Pork sales didn’t come to a screeching halt; raging crowds of consumers didn’t storm hog farms with torches and pitchforks, demanding retribution for the animals.

So that means it had no real impact — right? Oh, if things were only that easy.

No, the impact will be a slow-burn, smoldering under the surface for some time to come. Animal activists are more patient today, moving state by state fanning the flames where they know their efforts will catch fire. Whether it involves pressuring food companies and brands, forcing stockholders to vote on supplier referendums, reaching out to younger consumers or lobbying lawmakers to act, they are methodically laying down kindling for bigger impact.

I watched the HBO film with two friends with very different life philosophies, because I wanted to measure their reactions. One is an emotional free-spirit; the other is a mathematical, science-based thinker. Both grew up in small Midwestern cities, and both share their homes with multiple pets. Following the film, their reactions were surprisingly similar. “Is that really the industry you work in?” They looked at me a bit shocked.

The image that stuck with my friends involoved the general filth of the animals’ environments. At least on camera it was more extreme than typical farm dirt. There was a slight gag-reflex as they related what they saw to the food they eat. “Is the pork I eat raised in those kinds of conditions?” they asked.

Make no mistake, my friends were concerned about the animals’ harsh treatment. The blunt-force trauma used to euthanize piglets was among the most bothersome. That may be an industry “approved” and effective method, but it is in no way acceptable to the public. Still, it was the connection to their food that made my friends extra queasy, and that’s what will help the activists’ efforts gain traction. 

“The Westland/Hallmark incident successfully tied food safety with animal handling,” Barb Masters, a Washington, D.C. lobbyist, said in a recent presentation. “There will be many opportunities for legislation and regulations in 2009.” Westland/Hallmark was a cattle incident, but consumers and lawmakers won’t make the distinction between species.

Following the HBO broadcast, I received some e-mails from consumers who had stumbled on to Pork’s Web site. As I cautiously opened the e-mails to see what they had to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find they were pleasantly surprised with the commentary and other information that we had posted on the topic.

Even a self-proclaimed vegan said: “When I read your review (of the film), I was expecting denial…and more corporate propaganda, but I was quite impressed with your unbiased attitude that this is not okay. It gives me hope.”

Another consumer wrote: “I was expecting to read more of an assault on the film’s producers, given your publication and the publication’s audience…Instead, what I read was a responsible call to action.”

Perhaps the cavern is not so wide as we perceive when we listen, empathize and explain our commitment to the animals and to feeding people — responsibly.

This is not an “us-versus-them” argument between producers and consumers. Remember, they are your customers. 

“We must not consider anyone our enemy,” said a young Indiana pork producer. “They are just ill-informed.”

“We need to acknowledge that emotion will play a role in this,” said another producer. “…for too long agriculture has kept emotion out of it and let science and economics do the talking. It will take all three, emotion, science and economics to be successful.” 

Those are positive, energized words from the next generation of pork producers. Words are important, and industry programs like Operation Main Street are reaching more of your customers each year (4 million in 2008). But words cannot substitute for actions, and today you have to prove your commitment.

For you, the best game in town is the industry’s “We Care” program, with its focus on producing pork responsibly as it relates to animal care, the environment, food safety, your employees and the community in which you live. This program embraces the Transport Quality Assurance program and Pork Quality Assurance Plus, with an on-farm assessment involving you and your production-based employees. It will reveal what you are doing right and what you can do better. Longer term, there is a component that involves random third-party audits. You may not like the sound of  a potential on-farm audit, but it is a must to prove that you are doing what you say. If you have not yet signed up, click here.

The HBO documentary is not going to make people stop eating pork chops, bacon and ham — Americans don’t have that kind of willpower — but it and other actions will get them to vote against you.

Here’s another consumer e-mail response: “I’m not an activist by any stretch, but I’ve got a heart and soul. They kinda got a little broke after watching that film. I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it.”

You may have dodged a bullet this time, but with resposible commitment and involvement, you can defuse their ammunition.