LAYING out the facts in an open and non-combative manner has proven a powerful strategy for beef industry leaders in the wake of an Australian tour by prominent United States anti-meat campaigner David Robinson Simon.
Mr Simon, a lawyer and author of the hot selling book Meatonomics, has spoken at events hosted by animal protection charity Voiceless, with more than 1000 people turning out across seven capital cities to hear him.
His main message was animal food producers aggressively influence consumer behaviour through legislation, messaging and price manipulation, which has adverse consequences for both people and animals.
Mr Simon said the Australian Government was partnering with the industry to promote a level of meat consumption that was out of sync with health research.
He told audiences marketing efforts were encouraging people to consume carcinogens, backing his argument with World Health Organisation classifications.
He said almost all meat and dairy consumed in both the United States and Australia comes from factory farmed animals “who spend their lives in routine misery and suffering.”
Producers, beef marketers and industry leaders responded by presenting information on how cattle and sheep are raised in Australia, how generic red meat marketing is funded and the detailed content of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report which led to the WHO classifications.
Their information paints a picture in stark contrast to the Meatonomics claims.
Australian cattle and sheep industries were predominantly pasture based production systems and the term ‘factory farmed’ was not even used in Australia, producers said.
Australia was a global leader in animal welfare and a recent first-ever beef sustainability framework lists it as one of the industry’s four key pillars, according to the Red Meat Advisory Council (RMAC).
Marketing campaigns run by Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), the producer-owned provider of research and development and marketing to the red meat industry, were not funded in any part by the government but by industry levies alone.
MLA says it promotes eating red meat as part of a healthy, balanced diet, at a level of “palm-sized portions three to four times a week.”
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend 455 grams of cooked red meat per week.
A question and answer document provided by IARC, available online, says eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer.
It was classified as probably carcinogenic to humans based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies, IARC said.
Limited evidence means a positive association had been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations could not be ruled out.
Processed meats were classified in a category as having sufficient evidence of causing colorectal cancer.
Melanie McGrice, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, said processed meat was a product that included additives.
“So when you buy t-bones, mince, lamb chops - that’s not processed,” she said.
“People don’t tend to eat processed meat so much in Australia.”
Ms McGrice said red meat posed a challenging public health message for Australian authorities.
Consuming too little leads to some types of health problems, consuming too much, other problems, she said.
Beef and lamb were very good sources of iron and zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3, she said.
The latest review of the dietary guidelines, in 2013, showed women were not eating the recommended 455 grams of lean red meat per week, and as such iron and zinc levels were low.
However, adult men were eating in excess of the recommended levels.
MLA said it was this information which had largely driven its “You’re Better on Beef” campaign targeting women.
The vegetarian diet could also be very confusing for the general community, Ms McGrice said.
“A vegetarian diet can be healthy but it needs to be done correctly,” she said.
“Many people don’t know how to eat a healthy vegetarian diet and end up cutting out red meat and missing out on vital nutrients.”
PEAK beef groups acknowledged there had been a shift in the way the industry deals with what it considers misinformation and extreme anti-meat agendas.
Where once the attitude was to ignore, there is now an understanding of the need to address.
“As an industry, the last two Meat Industry Strategic Plans have clearly articulated a focus on improving transparency and the Australian industry has led the way in programs to respond to consumer interest in beef production,” an RMAC spokesperson said.
RMAC’s just-released Australian Beef Sustainability Framework report is an example of this work.
It is described as a guide for the industry to use when monitoring, measuring and reporting sustainability, a proactive response to changing community and consumer expectations that has come via extensive stakeholder consultation.
“As an industry, we are becoming more aware of the potential risks associated from the loss of community support, especially from an increasing number of consumers making decisions based on environmental or animal welfare considerations,” the RMAC spokesperson said.
“We are also aware of the opportunities for the industry from continually improving practices, and communicating those improvements to the broader community.
“As an industry, that’s why it is important we address misinformation about our industry and our practices that can influence a growing section of consumers, through providing fact-based information, being more transparent and engaging with the community.”
Q and A with David Robinson Simon
Q: What are the key messages of Meatonomics?
A: Animal food producers aggressively influence consumer behavior through three primary mechanisms: legislation, messaging and price manipulation. This behavior has numerous adverse consequences for people and animals in both the US and Australia. Most significantly, people consume much more animal foods than they would otherwise, with serious adverse health effects. Additionally, factory-farmed animals, from whom almost all meat and dairy consumed in the US and Australia comes, spend their lives in routine misery and suffering.
Q: What inspired you to write about these issues?
A: I learned several years ago that because of numerous legislative changes in the past several decades, virtually all animals raised for food in the US are not covered by anti-cruelty statutes that protect other animals like dogs and cats. As a result of so-called “customary farming exemptions,” normal statutory protections that, for example, prohibit hyper-confinement or bodily mutilations such as cutting off all or part of animals’ testicles, ears, horns, tails, or beaks without anesthesia simply don’t apply to farmed animals. This led me to explore other ways that producers have sought, over the past several decades, to radically improve their bottom lines in ways that often result in mistreating animals and/or misleading consumers. Incidentally, customary farming exemptions are also the norm for virtually all animals raised in Australia, with the nominal exception of the ACT which has adopted some measures that attempt to provide farmed animals with limited protection from abuse.
Q: What messages seem to be resonating most with the Australian audiences and why do you think that is the case?
A: Australian audiences seem particularly interested in “levy” programs that aggressively promote animal foods to Australian consumers. The Australia Department of Agriculture and Water Resources regularly partners with industry to promote messages like “You’re Better on Beef” and “Get Some Pork on Your Fork.” Yet consumption of red meat is closely associated with a number of diseases, including cancer. In fact, the World Health Organization lists red meat as a Class 2A carcinogen and processed meat as a Class 1 carcinogen, meaning virtually all forms of red meat are either likely or known to cause cancer in humans. Not coincidentally, Australia ranks number 3 in the world in cancer incidence. So many Australians are shocked to learn their government is behind efforts to literally encourage people to consume carcinogens.
Q: Why would a government want to promote more consumption than is healthy - what does it stand to gain?
A: Actually, government has nothing to gain from promoting unhealthy foods and only stands to lose by incurring higher healthcare costs from treating cancer and other diseases linked to animal food consumption. The only group that gains from levy programs’ messages is the producers themselves, and the only apparent reason why government continues to assist producers in these efforts is that producers exert significant influence over government regulators and lawmakers.
Q: Is it possible to provide some examples of legislation that ‘externalises production costs for beef and dairy producers’?
A: Two examples of such legislation are so-called Right to Farm laws and customary farming exemptions. Right to Farm laws prevent a plaintiff who lives near a factory farm from bringing a nuisance lawsuit against the farm, for example polluting water or air. Because these laws bar citizens from privately enforcing environmental laws, they leave enforcement to government agencies that often decline to act because of limited resources, lack of political will, or other reasons. Factory farmers can thus emit damaging pollutants with less threat of recourse than otherwise, allowing them to externalise production costs they would otherwise be forced to internalise. That’s one reason these laws are often nicknamed “Right to Harm” laws. In Australia, one example of such a law is Tasmania’s Primary Industry Activities Protection Act 1995. Another is this regulatory policy adopted by NSW: http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/587184/NSW-Right-to-farm-policy.pdf.
Another example of a form of legal protection that allows producers to externalse costs is found in customary farming exemptions. Because these exemptions allow farmers to avoid costs they would otherwise incur to treat animals humanely, they can instead treat animals inhumanely and save money. As consumers have demonstrated they are willing to pay some measurable, predictable amount to prevent cruelty to farmed animals, and this “willingness to pay” is, in fact, a type of externalised cost recognised by economists, farmers’ inhumane treatment of animals represents an actual shifting of production costs to people. One example of a customary farming exemption is found in NSW’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 which provides in Section 34A that a farmer who complies with codes of practice separately adopted by the NSW Department of Industry is deemed to have complied with the NSW anti-cruelty statute. These codes of practice are notoriously inhumane and simply legitimise various expedient and cost-effective practices that are painful and/or stressful for animals.
Q: Also an example of laws that ‘insulate from scrutiny and liability?’
A: One type of law that insulates producers from scrutiny is so-called Ag-Gag laws. These laws prohibit covert surveillance on factory farms. Examples include the NSW Biosecurity Bill of 2015, and the South Australia Surveillance Devices Bill 2016 (passed the SA Parliament and currently awaiting assent by the SA governor).
An example of a law that insulates producers from liability is the Right to Farm law discussed in the prior question.
Q: Australian beef and dairy producers say they are among the least subsidised in the world.
A: Yes, that is accurate. Government subsidies to agriculture in Australia are among the lowest in the world. However, this is something of a red herring because subsidies are only a tiny part of the problem. Subsidies account for less than 7 per cent of the estimated minimum annual externalised costs of Australian animal food production.