Rick Berman
Rick Berman

You are already aware that Switzerland-based Nestlé recently announced that it is going to make a number of requests of its meat suppliers, including a phase-out of individual maternity pens. There’s no timeline for any of the actions, just a promise to get around to it at some point.

The response from the Humane Society of the United States has been somewhat muted—probably because HSUS can’t take credit for it. The deal appears to be mostly the work of a UK-based group called World Animal Protection, formerly known as the World Society for the Protection of Animals, or WSPA. (HSUS tried to weasel its way into the news by saying it had had “dialogue” with Nestlé—whatever that means.)

WAP is an animal rights group but in a more moderate mold than HSUS or PETA. For instance, WAP does not have an internal organization policy requiring veganism as HSUS and PETA do. WAP’s policy statement from 2008 is as follows: “Farmed animals must be provided with shelter, exercise, food, water and care in a manner appropriate to their physiological and behavioral needs.”

That translates into campaigns to promote cage-free eggs, pen-free pork, and so on. The group’s budget is about $48 million for its UK-based office; the U.S. office is much smaller, at about $8 million, plus WAP has a few offices in other countries, including developing nations. About 14 percent of its spending out of the main office is on farm animal issues.

The Swiss have a history of avoiding “war,” so while this decision is not expected it was also not surprising. But it shows that there is a European problem.

In Europe, many companies that use animals in research have been targeted for years by the fringe of the animal rights movement and had terrorist actions taken against them. For years, the group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) operated in England and ran rampant, only recently ending its 15-year campaign after leaders were imprisoned.

In the European food industry, however, there’s not the same history of illegal action. But, as we know, there is a more stringent regulatory scheme that exists across the European Union already, from a 2012 ban on conventional hen cages to a 2013 ban on individual maternity pens for sows. Some individual countries have had these regulations for longer.

In the United States, the pork industry has done a good job in pushing back against HSUS/PETA activism in the food industry. Many food retailers get the joke that these groups, led by vegan zealots, are not honest partners for restaurants or supermarkets.

But now animal activists are targeting European multinational companies. And in Europe, there’s a different mindset—a more capitulating one.

While there aren’t many restaurants or grocers based out of Europe—Ahold, which owns Giant Food and Stop & Shop, is one—there are other ways for WAP, HSUS, and others to pressure agriculture.

Here in the States, activists continue to push for bans on antibiotic usage in farm animals, and many antibiotics companies are based in Europe.

Recently, Consumers Union petitioned Trader Joe’s to source its meat from producers who don’t use antibiotics on a preventive protocol. Chick-fil-A has made a public pledge to use “antibiotic-free” chicken in the next few years. Public-health and environmental activists pressure the FDA, and federal legislation has been consistently submitted to ban certain uses of antibiotics.

The issue isn’t going away. Companies in Europe will be future targets. Our question for U.S. agriculture: Do we have a strategy, or will the activists drive the debate?