The Center for Consumer Freedom and its website, HumaneWatch.org, have emerged as an effective counter to the misinformation and hypocrisy disseminated by the Humane Society of the United States. David Martosko of Berman and Company, a leading Washington-based research and communications firm, serves as a coordinator for the activities of Berman’s clients who oppose the HSUS.
Egg Industry recently had an opportunity to discuss current issues relating to the welfare environment.
Egg Industry: Could you provide our readers with a brief background to your professional activities?
David Martosko: I earned my bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in 1991, and followed it with an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University. Although my early training was in music, I moved into other forms of communication, including advertising and broadcasting. I served with ABC as a producer, later joining the campaign of New York Sen. Rick Lazio. You can say that I am a media animal.
EI: What is the Center for Consumer Freedom?
DM: CCF is an independent 501(c)(3) organization established about 15 years ago. Its goal is to provide information to consumers about the politics of food. The hot-button issues include obesity, food toxicology, food technology and the “organic” debate, the demonization of individual food ingredients, and of course the impact of the animal rights movement. We believe it’s necessary to educate the public about controversial issues, especially when sound science is regularly distorted by advocacy groups for their own narrow purposes.
EI: How is the Center for Consumer Freedom funded?
DM: There are a variety of funding sources, including more than 100 companies that represent a broad spectrum of food producers, retailers, restaurants, and agriculture. And we get an amazing number of small contributions from individual professionals and consumers. The center’s budget is relatively modest, hovering at around $3 million per year. By way of contrast, the income of the HSUS exceeds ours by a 30-fold factor.
EI: Does the Center for Consumer Freedom have any overriding philosophy?
DM: We oppose limits on the range and extent of the public’s responsible access to food and beverages of their choosing. We support every consumer’s right to pursue his or her own options, be it vegetarian, vegan, Atkins, or a conventional diet. We recognize that eating nothing but donuts (the “Homer Simpson diet”) is a stupid way to go through life, but it’s also not the government’s place to take that éclair out of anyone’s hands. As the Center for Consumer Freedom’s name implies, it serves as a counter to the “food fascists” who seem to derive a perverse pleasure from imposing their views on the unwilling and the uninformed.
EI: How did HumaneWatch.org come into being?
DM: After the 2006 election, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about the HSUS’s politicking, documenting the considerable amount of money the group expended in its political campaigns. The HSUS spent more in that year’s election cycle, the WSJ reported, than Exxon Mobil. And it contributed more to candidates for Congress than Halliburton. After that wake-up call, we saw Proposition 2 unfold in California. And it became painfully clear that unless someone educated the public about just what the HSUS is (and what it isn’t), the group would run the table everywhere it went. So HumaneWatch.org was launched in February of this year to expose the HSUS’s unseen hand and try to bring the public’s perceptions back in line with reality. In short, we’re putting the HSUS, its finances and its practices under a magnifying glass. And it’s becoming clear that the organization’s carefully preened public image is a sham.
EI: What lessons can we learn from the recent settlement in Ohio?
DM: First and foremost, we learned that the HSUS can pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. I confess that at first blush, I thought Ohio farmers were getting a good deal. I even wrote about it. But by the time the actual text of Gov. Strickland’s “Buckeye Compromise” was released the next day, the whole thing started to smell like day-old fish. The other thing we must learn is that the HSUS is playing a much longer game than farmers are. Livestock producers, like most businessmen and women, are busy thinking about the next quarter, the next slaughter, the next auction. The HSUS is looking 20, 30, even 40 years down the road and figuring out how far it can move Americans’ perceptions and preferences by then. This time, not only did Ohio farmers get a raw deal in the short term, but the HSUS also advanced one step closer to its long-term objectives.
EI: Do you consider that the HSUS may “go federal” if it’s rebuffed at the state level?
DM: A federal approach does not seem likely in this Congress, and if the pollsters are right, things will be quite difficult for the HSUS in the next one. But I think yes, the next time the HSUS senses a political majority on its hands, it’s going to parlay its intermediate state-by-state victories into a federal bill. Whether that goes over like a lead balloon, it’s too soon to say. It’s also worth noting that the HSUS may be hoping for as many states as possible to emulate Ohio’s “livestock care standards board” strategy. With a dozen or so different boards, we’re going to see a dozen or so different standards. It’s just a matter of time before the HSUS argues (to the USDA, for starters) that we need a single nationwide standard to reconcile all those differences. If that happens, I don’t think livestock producers will like the result.
EI: What can producers do to protect their public image?
DM: Based on recent events the egg industry should redouble its efforts to ensure that housing, procedures and actions are consistent with the highest standards of welfare and husbandry. There’s no doubt in my mind that the HSUS was planning a few “October Surprise” moments for Ohio this year. In general, when animal welfare rears its head as a PR issue, animal ag industries don’t react with enough vigor. They need to run the bad actors out of town on a rail, so no one (not even “Humane Wayne” Pacelle) can claim that animal abuse is an everyday occurrence on American farms. And above all, livestock farmers and ranchers should demonstrate greater unity in the face of the HSUS and other antagonists. Wouldn’t it be great if the next time the HSUS rolled out a heavily spliced piece of video, we saw full-page ads in The New York Times the very next day, signed by 100 of America’s biggest players in the field? The ads could carry the message that “if you attack one of us, you’re attacking all of us.” Call it a mutual-defense pact. Sort of like NATO.
EI: How can the industry assist the Center for Consumer Freedom in its activities?
DM: We’re grateful for as much support as we can attract, including funding, technical and scientific assistance, and media opportunities. The forces aligned against farmers are well financed, they draw on an immense reservoir of pro bono legal assistance, and they have media savvy staff and volunteers. We get a lot of bang for our buck, but this is still a David vs. Goliath battle. And we’re the ones holding the slingshot.