The State of Animal Agriculture, Part III: They’re Terrified of the Plant-Based Movement

The plant-based movement is gaining momentum, and animal agriculture is terrified. From the ubiquity of non-dairy milks now available in grocery stores to monstrously popular veggie burgers now available in fast food restaurants, it’s fair to say they have reason to be fearful. While the industry’s concern over animal rights activists is long-standing, their worries have taken on a new urgency in light of the growing popularity of plant-based and vegan foods.

Let’s be a little self-indulgent and take a look at how afraid they really are.

Beef

In their FAQs section, the beef board acknowledges that they “cannot engage in political debates or use dollars to influence government policy or action, including lobbying.” In other words, they say, they cannot do anything except for use “scientific facts to counter the misinformation shared by anti-beef activists.”

One way of countering this information, apparently, is through the Masters of Beef Advocacy training course.

While none of us is going to volunteer to endure such a “course,” we are doubtful that it sticks purely to “scientific facts.” To the contrary, this is more likely a sort of brainwashing regimen featuring propaganda that ensures these “students” are armed with only the facts and half-truths the industry wants people to know about.

They’re a little more straightforward about the threat posed by animal rights activists elsewhere.

But the industry’s concern with public perception, especially among the younger crowd, is underscored by their commissioning of a study in 2015 by the firm Hall & Partners. The Campaign Effectiveness Online Tracker study asked visitors of BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com, a beef industry website, whether they found the information on the site useful, whether it made them interested in eating beef, whether it inspired them to cook beef, and more. It also measured the impact of the site on visitor perceptions of beef, finding that 85% of visitors agreed that beef is “a food that can be part of a well-balanced diet”; 84% agreed that beef is “a food you can feel good about eating”; 82% agreed that beef is “a food that is worth paying more for” and “a food that is an ideal balance of good taste and good nutrition”; and 74% agreed that beef is “a food that’s low in fat.”

Finally, the report on the study concludes, “[y]ou’re reaching and attracting your key audience”: millennial parents. The beef industry understands that perception is key, and the way to win over the next generation is by referencing research that supports the conclusions they want you to make—and ignoring the rest.

They’re afraid of millennials — and for good reason. More than half of millennials are trying to incorporate at least some plant-based foods in their diet, and a dollar towards vegan and vegetarian options is a dollar stolen from the beef industry, as far as they’re concerned. Let’s remember, also, that the industry has the stated goal of preventing sustainability concerns from being incorporated into the USDA’s dietary recommendations, potentially in violation of their prohibition on lobbying.

A blog post on the very-trustworthily-named website factsaboutbeef.com warns against those dastardly “plant-based diets,” essentially warning you that you’ll get fat if you try it:

“Be careful of which “plant-based” proteins you eat—most Americans are already consuming a plant-based diet. On average, more than 60 percent of our daily calories already come from plants, such as refined grains. A plant-based diet requires eating more calories to get the protein our bodies need. Be sure to consider total calorie consumption if you’re following a plant-based diet.”

And another revealing post demonstrates the industry’s fear of lab-grown meat, once again citing farmer’s beliefs as the Ultimate Authority:

“There is no substitute for real beef from cattle raised on a farm or ranch. Cattlemen and women believe beef comes from cattle raised on a farm or ranch, not from a test tube. While this is interesting research into alternative ways to grow protein, we do not see in-vitro meat or “fake meat” replacing real beef from cattle raised by farmers and ranchers for several reasons.”

The piece then goes on to cite a media report which gave the first lab-grown burger a less-than-raving review and points out the price tag of $300,000, either forgetting — or preferring to overlook — the fact that a typical commodity’s production is streamlined to improve quality and reduce cost over time. I’ll bet the first beef burger didn’t taste that great, either. The post ends with yet another reminder that “U.S. farmers and ranchers are continuously improving the way beef is raised to ensure a sustainable beef supply that can help feed a growing world population.”

Dairy

In the meeting minutes from Dairy Management Inc’s May 2019 board meeting, they express concerns over the “plant-based agenda,” brainstorming ideas for new partnerships to address the threat.

They also brought up the possibility of partnering with other companies in the plant protein space. Shall we expect some kind of half-cows’ milk, half almond milk monstrosity, like the half-vegan, half-beef monstrosity burger?

As previously mentioned, the dairy industry has teamed up with influencers — likely millennials and zoomers — to hawk more cows’ milk. Also previously mentioned, they betray their panic over younger generations’ concern for the environmental impact of their dietary choices, the dairy industry actually published a blog post arguing that dairy has a positive environmental impact.

In another blog post, they directly compare almond milk to cows’ milk, emphasizing the number of ingredients in the former in comparison to the latter. Not listed in the ingredients for cow’s milk: blood and pus. The take home message: “when you choose real cow’s milk, you’re making a good choice for your family.” By implication, if you choose almond milk, you’re not, because it has more ingredients — though half are vitamins. Intriguing.

Eggs

The egg industry is perhaps the most outwardly fearful of plant-based foods. This isn’t all that surprising given what we know about their fight against Just Mayo, in which they engaged in dirty tactics to try to prevent the vegan competitor from taking over.

Like the dairy industry, the egg board likes to put out materials that emphasize the apparently unbelievable and untapped wonder of real eggs — not that fake stuff. This leads to some funny materials being put out, reminiscent of Reefer Madness.

Really, what this says is that real eggs can do stuff, while replacers can do, well, who really knows anyway? Will the replacers “produce the gold standard products consumers expect?” The answer is no, because real eggs are a thing we’ve been using for a long time, and egg replacers are, again, who knows? They just want readers to stick to the real thing and not try anything new.

It’s not really clear who this article is aimed at. It comes across like trying to convince readers that real eggs are better than replacers because…. most people already feel this way?

My favorite, though, is their attempt to co-op the meaning of “plant-based.” They really, really want this to include eggs. So they argue that eggs are a “natural complement” to “plant-forward” (whatever that means) dishes. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Right?

Conclusion

While this isn’t an exhaustive overview of how these industries — not to mention the poultry, pork, and other animal agriculture industries — are responding to the growing popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets, it is informative. This surface review of the content they’re pushing, their messaging, their misleading talking points, and their open acknowledgement of the threat we, as a collective, pose to them, evokes a unique sort of schadenfreude that we don’t get to experience much in a meat-centric world.

In the end, although the USDA is effectively subservient to the industry they are charged with scrutinizing, the industry can’t do much to counter the ethical imperative of veganism. Even though USDA employees can’t recommend that their colleagues try going meatless for a day; the Agricultural Marketing Service doesn’t dare hold the research and promotion boards accountable; and dietary advice is carefully crafted to avoid offending those who could stand to lose from guidelines that encourage Americans to eat less of the foods they produce, this stranglehold the animal agriculture industries have on the USDA isn’t enough.

An ethical message trumps a barbaric one any day of the week. The march of progress is slow, but undaunting. Veganism is an idea whose time has come.

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