Veganism: It’s What Gives Big Ag Real Nightmares

A good friend just wrote to compliment my Times piece. However, he wondered if the message could backfire, encouraging consumers to source animal products from factory farms rather than from “less bad” small farms. His concern is valid. And that’s why it annoys me so much.

Many readers who know my work, and understand my commitment to veganism, find it strange that I’m often slandered as an advocate of industrial agriculture. This accusation sticks, though, because our current discourse on food is trapped in a simplistic—and deeply harmful– dichotomy: industrial (bad)/ non-industrial (good). Even the most intelligent consumers have succumbed to the logical fallacy that if an animal product isn’t industrially produced, then it’s automatically beyond criticism.  Thus, the fact that I spend a lot of my time criticizing the small alternatives automatically makes me a shill for Big Agriculture.

That’s crazy.

Because who’s really shilling for Big Agriculture? As I’ve argued before, small farms—by virtue of their impassioned commitment to killing, selling, and eating animals—are the real enablers of industrially produced meat. They’re the ones legitimating the very act—eating animals—that’s at the core of industrial animal production. So twisted is the Food Movement’s logic that my call for ending the consumption of animal products—something that would harm industrial animal culture in an instant—is deemed an affirmation of the status quo.  So twisted is the Food Movement’s logic that the radicalism of veganism is mocked, debased, and erased.

While disdaining veganism, the food movement gets excited about incremental improvements within industrial models. The fact that McDonalds and Burger King are no longer purchasing pork from suppliers who use gestation crates is surely good for pigs. But it’s nothing to celebrate in and of itself.  As I’ve noted, if the improvement does not explicitly move in the direction of ending animal agriculture per se, then there’s little long-term good that will result from it. One could easily argue that, in accepting welfare reforms, industrial producers are actually making it easier for welfare-minded consumers to choose factory farmed animal products in the first place.  In this sense HSUS joins the small farms in shilling for animal agriculture.  Still, none of this keeps the Food Movement from blaming an advocate of veganism for pepetuating industrial agriculture.

Admittedly, the point here is to rant a bit. But it’s also to insist that veganism must to be hammered into the public discourse as not only a viable third option, but as the single-most powerful action an individual can make to confront the horrors of factory farming.  To silence that message out of fear of being distorted would be a disservice to the one demographic that the Food Movement never fails to marginalize: farm animals themselves.


McDonald’s Ends Use of Gestation Crates: Victory?

So, as you may have heard, McDonald’s has decided to require its pork suppliers to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls–the cruel apparatuses designed (ostensibly) to keep pigs from fighting. Animal advocacy groups are predictably thrilled. “The HSUS has been a long time advocate for ending the use of gestation crates,” explained president and CEO Wayne Pacelle, adding, “It’s just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives in crates barely larger than their bodies.” Mark Bittman (sigh) went all wobbly in the face of the news, calling it “a major victory.”

Major victory? Really?

It’s hard to deny that McDonald’s decision, assuming it’s effectively carried out, will result in millions of sows living more fulfilling lives before they’re culled for slaughter. It’s also hard to deny that factory farmers are all in a huff–which is always a sign that a good decision has been made. An editorial in Beef Magazine explained, “Can pork producers meet these demands? Yes. Will there be a cost? Yes.” In this limited sense, McDonald’s commitment to ending the use of gestation stalls can be called a victory. Fine. But why am I not uncorking the champagne?

I’ve addressed this conundrum in past posts through the analogy of wrongful imprisonment. If I’m wrongfully imprisoned, I sure as hell would want advocacy groups working tirelessly to improve the conditions within prisons, especially the one holding me. More time outdoors, cleaner facilities, and better food would all improve the quality of my imprisoned life. That said, I’m not sure I’d ever use the word victory, or feel the corresponding urge to put on a party hat, unless wrongful imprisonment itself were ended and I was freed.

I appreciate HSUS’s efforts in encouraging McDo’s to end the use of torture devices for sows.  I genuinely do. But I’d be a lot more inclined to punch the air with a triumphant fist if Pacelle had gone a critical step further and declared not only that it’s “just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives,” but that it’s also wrong for humans to raise animals for food, period, and the elimination of gestation crates is a step toward the elimination of factory farming.  Now those would have been words worth celebrating.

Critics of organizations such as HSUS frequently condemn their efforts as “welfarist,” aiding and abetting, it is said, the very system central to widespread animal suffering.  Well, until advocacy groups who fight for incremental changes within current systems of animal production contextualize such “victories” in the larger quest for a world without animal agriculture, the welfarist charge will stick all over them like sap.

Mark Bittman (sigh) declared (or at least his headline did) that “McDonald’s Does the Right Thing.” It’s due to this widespread failure to rhetorically cast welfare victories in the larger framework of veganism that Bittman (sigh) can endorse such a view. We need to remind ourselves that the only right thing McDonald’s can do is vanish.

How to Scare the Shit out of Corporate Food: Eat More Kale

Many reacted with shock when Chick-fil-A sent a cease and desist letter to a dude from Vermont who made t-shirts declaring “Eat More Kale.”  The shirt was allegedly ripping off the fast food chain’s “eat mor chikin” slogan.

Over the years I’ve interviewed dozens of executives from companies such as Cargill, Tyson’s, Monsanto, and Syngenta (not to mention dozens more in the corn, soy, and cattle business). I’m therefore not surprised at Chick-fil-A’s action. As I’ve learned, any hint of veganism scares the life out of these companies.  I remember asking a Monsanto representative if he worried about the growing power of the Eat Local movement. He laughed and told me not at all.  It was the potential that veganism would gain the popularity of localism that kept him up at night.

The Food Movement as a whole barely registers with the big guys because the big guys know they can always use their power to co-opt the movement’s defining ideas. Just this morning McDonald’s tweeted about its own “farm to fork story.” Laugh all you want at such cynicism, but McDonald’s knows exactly what it’s doing. The company understands full well that its “farm to fork story” is a sham. But it also knows that in telling that story, the company undermines the exclusive power that the “farm to fork” concept once carried, and thus saps strength from the Food Movement.

Can’t do this with veganism. As I have argued repeatedly, veganism is therefore the most direct and effective action we can take to challenge the corruption and dominance of industrial agriculture.  So, eat more kale (no matter where it was grown), buy a t-shirt from this guy (, and if you are not vegan, become one.

The Saga Continues: Smithfield Pork Responds

Last week I wrote a piece in the Atlantic about HSUS’s decision to file a complaint against Smithfield Foods for its claim that the pork it supplies to McDonald’s was raised according to the highest welfare standards. []

When I was researching my story I called Smithfield for a comment. They asked for my e-mail and sent me a generic, and totally useless, response, which you can read below in my previous post. After the story ran, however, I received the following letter from Smithfield. I plan to speak at length with this representative, as, judging from an e-mail exchange, he seems both sincere and impassioned. For now, though, here is the response: 


Dear Mr. McWilliams:

I want to advise you that your Nov. 3 The Atlantic posting, “McFib? The Conditions at McDonald’s McRib Pork Supplier”, unfortunately was based on misleading, inaccurate and outdated information provided by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which continues to spread misinformation about Smithfield Foods despite our best efforts to enlighten the organization about our animal care programs.

 I couldn’t help noticing that HSUS didn’t mention that in the wake of its 2010 video a Smithfield Foods committee and third-party animal care experts Dr. Temple Grandin and Jennifer Woods conducted separate investigations of our animal care procedures.

 As a result of their findings, three employees were terminated for violating our company’s industry-leading Animal Care Policy. In addition, our company implemented several recommendations from Dr. Grandin and Ms. Woods to further enhance and strengthen our animal care procedures. Among the recommendations, we have conducted retraining of our employees on the proper handling of our animals, and we re-emphasized to our employees that Smithfield Foods has zero tolerance for any behavior that does not conform to our established animal care procedures. Willful neglect or abuse of animals is not tolerated, and will result in immediate termination.

 Simply put, when mistakes are made or violations of our policies occur, we correct them.

Our farm managers and veterinarians take good care of our animals because they are the reason we are in business, and we do everything we can to ensure they are safe, comfortable and healthy. It’s the right thing to do, and it is integral to our company’s success.

You’ve also repeated an inaccurate HSUS claim that we have “rescinded” our goal of phasing out gestation stalls at our company-owned sow farms in favor of group housing by 2017. However, we remain committed to reaching that target.  

In fact, our commitment has never wavered, as evidenced by our progress in converting 30 percent of our sows to group housing by the end of 2011, and our commitment to spend more than $300 million to achieve our stated goal. Your readers can read about our progress at While the dramatic economic downturn of three years ago temporarily slowed our efforts in phasing out gestation stalls, we have always steadfastly stood by our commitment to ultimately achieve this goal.

 Beyond that, we are very proud that our concerted social responsibility efforts during the past decade have resulted in noteworthy third-party recognition. Most significantly, we were the first in our industry to achieve ISO 14001 environmental certification for all of our U.S. hog production and pork processing facilities. ISO 14001 is the international gold standard for environmental management. In addition, Smithfield Foods has been consistently named to FORTUNE magazine’s prestigious annual list of America’s Most Admired Companies. Companies are rated on eight criteria, from investment value to social responsibility.

 At the same time, let me quickly underscore that we’re not saying that we’re perfect. We have made mistakes in the past, but we have learned from them and we have redoubled our efforts to behave in a socially responsible manner. This is a journey, but we think we’re on the right track.


 Dennis H. Treacy

Executive Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer

Smithfield Foods, Inc.