The State of Animal Agriculture, Part II: They Think You’re Stupid

As we discovered in Part I, the USDA – their Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) in particular – is largely subservient to the animal agriculture industry, allowing the quasi-government bodies known as “checkoff boards” to utilize their funds however they see fit. Here, in Part II, we scrutinize some of the materials these boards put out (since AMS is reticent to do so).

Beef

Since 2010, significant proceeds from the beef checkoff have been dedicated to “promotion” and “consumer information,” the former comprising nearly half the expenses in 2010 and 2011 but dwindling to around 20% since 2015. Apparently, merely promoting beef as a commodity fell out of favor, as Americans became more interested in the latest research on healthy living. In response, the beef industry decided it needs to promote beef as a healthy, humane, and sustainable option that you can feel good about eating at every meal. The industry decided to turn to “informing” the public of scientific studies, often construing them as exonerating beef as a heart-healthy, weight loss powerhouse, with little regard for what the research actually found.

BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com, run by the checkoff, originally popped up circa 2004 but was more heavily trafficked in 2012 and beyond. The site exclaims beef’s nutritional value, provides recipes to consumers, and is all-around meant to cause readers to wonder what all the hype is about and try red meat — you know, for a change.

Taking it one step further, on the site’s “protein’s benefits” section, beef is lauded as a low-calorie, high-protein food of choice, in contrast to quinoa, peanut butter, and other plant-based protein sources—potentially violating the ban against materials that denigrate another commodity. In addition, this section advocates eating “25-30 grams” of protein per meal, a number that is surely too high for a substantial portion of the population.

Their “Lean Beef 101” page previously cited a study with just 36 participants which, according to them, “suggests that eating lean beef can also improve cholesterol levels!” In reality: the study fed all participants four different diets for a period of five weeks each, measuring their cholesterol levels to observe any changes. The results suggested a 4.7% decrease in LDL cholesterol compared to the “healthy American diet” control group (e.g., from 180 mg/dL to 171), hardly evidence that eating beef itself improves cholesterol. (All references to this study have since been removed from the page.)

The authoritatively-named FactsAboutBeef.com blog, launched in 2012, similarly battles for a positive public perception of red meat, with several articles arguing that beef is “sustainable,” a healthy, nutritious option, and the product of an altogether humane process.

One post, titled “Cows cause global warming? Incorrect. Beef production accounts for less emissions than you might think,” cites EPA data which states that methane from beef cattle comprises just 1.5% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, “methane from beef cattle” does not capture the totality of the environmental impact of raising cows for hamburgers. And of course, the blog post doesn’t link to the data in question. But data from the EPA’s website puts methane from cattle (not just for beef) at 3% – one third of the agriculture sector – calling into question the legitimacy of a title that asserts that cows don’t contribute to global warming. If climate scientists are correct in sounding the alarms and imploring us to take action yesterday to reduce greenhouse gases, three percent is not trivial.

Another post asserts that beef is “more sustainable than you think”:

“To the beef community, sustainability means balancing environmental responsibility, social diligence and economic opportunity while meeting the growing global demand for beef. Improving the sustainability of beef is of the utmost importance to the cattlemen and women who are working to ensure the longevity of the industry and are committed to continually improve how beef is responsibly raised.”

Note that they’ve conveniently included beef as a given in their definition of sustainability, while conversations about animal agriculture and climate change are supposed to be about whether and how much eliminating one or more animal agriculture industries would reduce global warming.

To be blunt: it doesn’t matter how much farmers care about the sustainability of what they produce; what matters is how sustainable the commodity actually is. Unlike the web page that compares the calories-to-protein ratio of beef versus plant-based foods, the industry doesn’t dare create a side-by-side comparison of the resources required to produce ten grams of protein in quinoa versus a steak.

Another one doubts that removing beef from your diet would reduce your contribution to greenhouse gases emissions. “In reality, completely removing beef from the diet would likely not result in huge declines in GHG emissions and would have negative implications for the sustainability of the U.S. food system.” How exactly avoiding beef would make our food supply less sustainable is not specified, and nobody claims that one person deciding to cut out red meat would result in “huge declines in GHG emissions.” The article is mainly a straw man argument, with a “we’ve come so far in making beef more sustainable” cherry on top.

Are Meatless Mondays better for me and the environment?” So reads the title of another post. “Meat, and beef in particular, is good for you AND good for the planet. In fact, eating vegetarian meals isn’t a shortcut to saving the planet or eating healthy and may actually do more harm than good.” How the production of any agricultural commodity – never mind one as resource-intensive as meat – could be “good for the planet” is unfathomable. “Contrary to Meatless Monday campaign claims, beef is both environmentally and nutritionally efficient – cattle farming requires less land, water and energy than in the past and provides 10 essential nutrients to your diet.” Again, the comparative sustainability between now and in the past is not the concern; the relevant question is how meat measures up to plants in terms of resources required to produce them. In a spectacular bit of black magic, the author states that “Americans are eating within the recommended amount for meat,” citing the USDA daily recommended amount of meat at 1.8 oz. and comparing this to studies that suggest Americans consume 1.7 oz. of beef per day. Of course, this only makes sense if one concludes that one is supposed to eat no meat other than beef, which is predictably what the industry would prefer. And of course, there is no citation for the claim that eating vegetarian meals “may actually do more harm than good”; anything to stop the American people from trying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.

To tackle the concern over water usage, we have “The Reality of Water Management & Raising Cattle.” This piece states that “it takes 441 gallons of water to produce one pound of boneless beef,” and then tries to convince the reader that, actually, that isn’t that bad. Rather than comparing this figure to the amount of water required to produce the same amount of calories or grams of protein in other foods, the post understandably compares 441 gallons per pound of beef to the 713 gallons required for one cotton t-shirt; the nearly 40,000 gallons for a new car; and the 36 million gallons per day leaked from the New York City water supply system. This is understandable because it is comparing apples and oranges; if the article compared apples to apples, it would be patently obvious to the reader that one apple is far worse than the others. Nevertheless, they hasten to remind us, beef production is more sustainable than it used to be!

Even worse is this post, titled “Beef and Water Use: Has the Drought had an Impact?” and published when California was in the midst of a seemingly never-ending drought. They complain that animal agriculture has been getting a bad rap for its heavy water use. “Often missing from these conversations is the reality that farmers and ranchers have been working for generations to conserve water resources every day, not just in recent years, with the understanding that water is a precious resource.” Nobody who criticizes the water footprint of animal agriculture believes farmers are needlessly hosing down everything in sight; the problem is the amount of water necessary to raise animals for food, and the way it used to be is, yet again, a non-issue. The piece then cites an updated figure on the amount of water required to produce and consume a pound of beef far higher than the above-mentioned one that pertains only to production: 617 gallons.

An article in the “nutrition” section of the site lists “Top ten reasons to eat beef.” At the top of the list? “Over one million farms and ranches could go out of business” if you don’t, as if this should be the primary concern of Americans deciding what to eat for dinner. Reason number five compares the amount of calories in peanut butter, black beans, or tofu needed to obtain the same amount of protein found in a 150 calorie serving of lean beef, again leading one to wonder if this violates the prohibition on materials that disparage another commodity. Similarly, reason number 10 states that “The summer grilling season—Fourth of July fireworks, Memorial Day picnics, Labor Day weekend barbecues and ball games— just wouldn’t be the same with tofu burgers.”

Tofu burgers aren’t a thing, but never mind that.

A February 2015 post under the banner “What do Justin Bieber, Bill Clinton and Ozzy Osbourne All Have in Common?” gloats about celebrities who went vegetarian “experiencing declining health” and returning to a meat-centric diet. “[Anne] Hathaway stated that her vegan diet had taken a toll on her health, revealing that she felt tired and weak while filming Interstellar. She told Harper’s Bazaar, ‘I didn’t feel good or healthy,’ but said that after adding protein back she ‘just felt better.’” Because of course, a diet without animal products is devoid of protein, despite the fact that no reputable dietetic association has stated that meat, dairy, or eggs are necessary to be healthy.

Another makes the bold claim that “[r]ed meat and health go hand-in-hand,” citing the previously mentioned diet study that, according to the author of this article, proves that “[e]ating red meat daily can help lower cholesterol as part of a heart-healthy diet.”

Though the 2015 Dietary Guidelines nearly recommended that Americans consume less meat, the beef industry was able to spin the new guidelines as “good news for beef lovers!” Surely, the decision to remove the suggestion to cut back on meat had nothing to do with pressure from industry.

In late 2015, the International Agency for Cancer Research, a branch of the World Health Organization, announced their conclusions that red meat and processed meat are carcinogenic. Calling this a “crisis” in their annual report for that year, the beef board mobilized to combat science. No fewer than three posts on FactsAboutBeef.com were dedicated to explaining why the IARC is wrong, including one titled “Science Does Not Support International Agency Opinion on Red Meat and Cancer.” Many of these complain that the IARC relied on observational studies; research which correlates cancer rates and consumption of red meat. An alternative explanation offered by the industry is that “lifestyle factors” — including smoking, poor eating habits, and lack of exercise — together increase cancer risk, and that it is unreasonable to lay blame to one type of food like red meat. This overlooks the fact that the IARC reviewed research of the link between red meat and cancer which zoomed in on the mechanisms by which chemical compounds found in meat promote cancer growth. Additionally, the IARC considered research which demonstrates a dose-response link between red meat and cancer, showing that the more red meat one eats, the more likely one is to be diagnosed with cancer, regardless of other lifestyle factors. Sure, there is likely more to the story, but the beef industry would prefer you not fact-check their criticisms.

Two articles — one actually titled “Cattle Producers Want You to See Inside the Barn,” and another with the title “The truth about undercover videos” — hope to convince you that farmers are committed to transparency and treat their livestock so well that maybe they would choose to live on the farm if they had a say. Never mind the numerous “ag-gag” laws introduced throughout the states, or the fact that those caught filming animal abuse on farms are frequently prosecuted as terrorists.

The Fallacy of Factory Farming” informs the reader that “[w]hile myths like factory farming seed the idea that the beef community is run only by large corporations, the truth is that the beef community is comprised of the nearly 1 million U.S. cattle farmers and ranchers who blend time-honored traditions with modern innovation to provide high-quality beef.” Going on to state that 97 percent of farms are “family-owned,” the piece of course neglects to provide figures on what percentage of cows come from these “family-owned” farms. In fact, at least 80% of beef on the market comes from just four companies, contrary to the mom-and-pop image of beef farmers the industry wants to leave you with. This article even links to “The Truth About Factory Farming” video in which a rancher actually states that she cares more about her cattle than her family. Right.

And then there’s the post that humane-washes branding cows:

“It is important for farmers and ranchers to be able to identify their cattle for the safety and security of their herd. Some cattle farmers and ranchers may use ear tags, which identify the animal with a number tagged in their ear (sort of like an earring). Before beginning the weaning process, other calves may receive a custom brand either by hot iron or freeze branding, so they are easily identifiable from a distance. The branding process does not cause long-term harm or pain to cattle, and it prevents them from getting lost or stolen. Additionally, some ranchers in western states are required by law to brand their cattle.”

The beef board’s 2016-2020 “Long Range Plan” explicitly includes ensuring that beef is included in the USDA’s dietary recommendations — a possible violation of the prohibition on lobbying governmental agencies. Notably, they emphasize the need for sustainability to not be considered; quite a departure from their previous statements about beef’s sustainability.

In what could be an SNL sketch, the beef board is developing a product called “beefshi,” and yes, it’s exactly as off-putting as it sounds.

Dairy

Now let’s turn to the dairy industry’s propaganda.

Meeting minutes from a Dairy Management, Inc. (the company effectively running the checkoff program) meeting from this past May seem to indicate that the taste of milk is “turning kids off from future consumption.” 

In their 2017 annual report, they predictably push the narrative that dairy is “sustainable.”

“Through the use of innovative and safe technology, the dairy industry delivers exceptional animal care, sustainable nutrition, and a better, fresher product.” Of course, they offer no comparison: exceptional animal care by what standard? “Sustainable nutrition” according to who? They rely upon their consumers not asking themselves these questions.

Also in their 2017 annual report, the dairy industry indicates their partnership with social media influencers as a means of selling more milk.

In case it’s not obvious, this really means they paid influencers to go to idyllic, small, “humane” farms and pet some cows. The idea is that, by seeing these photos paired with an advertisement for milk from someone they admire, their followers will conclude, falsely, that the milk they purchase at the grocery store comes from those happy cows. (It doesn’t.)

At the same time that the dairy industry pushes the nutritional value of dairy, they partner with fast food companies to get them to add more dairy to their already-unhealthy products.

No serious person thinks a pound of cheese is healthy. And bragging that the new item you helped place on Taco Bell’s menu contains eight times more cheese than a regular taco stands in stark contrast to claims that your product is a paragon of “sustainable nutrition.” And not just Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, they also partnered with McDonald’s and Domino’s to make their already-cheese-laden products more “dairy focused.” They even added their propaganda to the Domino’s box

Yet, they are allowed to engage in these partnerships, paired with logically incompatible advertising about the nutritional value of dairy, because the USDA is subservient to their interests. But if you ask them, they’d probably say with a straight face that they are making these fast food items healthier.

On their blog, they actually claim that dairy has a “positive environmental impact.” The reality? Pretty much nothing has a positive environmental impact. It makes sense to discuss the environmental of one food over another as positive or negative, but that’s only in the context of a comparison. Yet again, the industry does not want such comparisons to be made.

Earlier this year, in a blog post that really didn’t age well, they say that dairy “needed a spark” due to declining consumption of dairy, and Fairlife provided it.

In another piece of pure, unadulterated propaganda, this one a “letter from a dairy cow” written by a veterinarian, they push back against the idea that cows are victims.

“Hardly a month goes by without some “undercover” video surfacing from an animal rights group highlighting the plight of the poor cow. Well, let me just say that they don’t speak for me. I and my fellow cows are quite content, I must admit.

“Are there some cows that are mistreated? I’d have to guess that there are. But frankly, I think you humans have a better track record of treating us cows than you do of treating your fellow humans, judging from the killings and wars and crimes committed that we hear about when the farmers talk. Those farmers that mistreat cows just aren’t going to be in business for very long and here’s why.”

There are simply no words to describe the audacity of this post. First, the scare quotes around the word “undercover.” It’s just odd and somehow petty. And the claim that cows are quite content? Citation needed. On top of that, the argument that humans treat fellow humans worse than they treat cows? It’s hard to think anyone seriously believes that.

    We dairy cows were made for this; it is our purpose.

Disgusting, but hardly surprising. Yet, we can take some solace in what his reveals: how desperate the industry is to hide the truth of its inherent cruelty.

Eggs

Let’s move on to the egg industry.

They appear to use similar tactics as the beef and dairy industries: attempting to convince people that eggs are environmentally sustainable because they’re better than they used to be, all the while using careful wording to ensure their product is not compared with alternatives.

In a 2013 press release, they reported that a study revealed that eggs are more environmentally friendly than ever. While the results aren’t necessarily false, they help convince the public that eggs are environmentally sustainable when any objective understanding of what sustainability means indicates otherwise. If you tell people over and over that something is “better than ever,” and they believe it, it won’t be long before they think that something is “good.” In reality, it could well be the case that it’s just less awful than it used to be.

In their 2017 annual report, we see that the egg industry has also employed social media to help them hawk eggs, even taking advantage of the eclipse by inventing something called “Eclipse Eggs.” I don’t know who the people are that celebrate an eclipse by eating eggs, but please keep them far away from me.

Their 2016 annual report indicated their adoption of SnapChat to reach those ever-valuable millennials by posting photos of something called the “egg chair.”

I don’t know, either.

Perhaps the egg board is a little more cautious after they were caught trying to prevent Whole Foods from stocking Just, Inc (then Hampton Creek)’s Mayo, but I didn’t find much else that I found too objectionable.

In conclusion, the animal agriculture industries — the beef, dairy, and egg boards in particular — exploit the layperson’s tendency to fall for logical fallacies. For example, by continually reiterating that their products are more humane and more sustainable than ever, they know they can convince people that their products really are humane and sustainable. However, we also see their greatest weakness: direct comparison with the plant-based counterparts. You really can’t argue that a Beyond Burger is less ethical or sustainable than a beef burger; to do so would be self-sabotage. Same thing goes for soy milk versus cows’ milk, or eggs versus your typical egg replacer. Although such comparisons are ostensibly forbidden by AMS rules anyway, as we’ll see in Part III, the industry enjoys making them when it suits their interests. And as we’ll see, such comparisons reveal the industry’s utter fear of the plant-based movement.

If schadenfreude for an industry that relies on the exploitation and suffering of animals is something you’re into, be sure to check back for Part III.

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