Before Activist Strike: Be Smart….

by Hinda Mitchell

Over the past decade, livestock and poultry farms across the United States have been under siege by animal rights groups who use a certain tactic – the shooting and release of undercover video – to advance their agenda of ending the consumption of meat, milk and eggs.  In the early years, they restricted their activities to breaking into farms at night and shooting video in one visit.  More recently, these groups have resorted to a modified approach – getting undercover workers hired at local farms, where they then work for extended periods  of time, engaging with on-farm workers and shooting undercover video.

While there has been much speculation about whether the animal abuse seen on much of the undercover footage is staged or is incited by the cameraman, the end result is still the same.  And for animal agriculture, it perpetuates the challenge we face each day – ensuring our consumer believes in how we farm, in how we produce food, and that we are firmly committed to responsible care of our animals.

Our instinct when these kinds of video releases happen is to blame the messenger – “They staged it.”  “Why did they wait so long to release it?”  “They’re just using it to make people vegans.”  It’s essential to keep this top of mind – it doesn’t matter what their motives are; it doesn’t matter who put the video out.  What matters is the visual image our consumers are left with at the end of the three minutes of video tape.

Ohio, being at the epicenter of farm animal activism right now, has had more than its fair share of this undercover activity, including a recent dairy farm release by Mercy for Animals (MFA).  This is a difficult situation from which to recover, for the farmer and his family, for the dairy farm community as a whole, and really for all of agriculture.

Through the process, however, a few things have come to light that, when viewed in the context of similar experiences in undercover farm video situations in other states, seem worthwhile to share.

First, each of these “undercover releases” from MFA occurred because the organization was able to get one of their MFA investigators hired at a farm.  The situation was made worse by the fact that farm workers in many cases were aware there was “something strange going on” with the undercover employee, but either didn’t care enough to report it or didn’t feel empowered to do so.   In several of the situations, workers actually said after the fact that they thought the worker might have been working undercover.

Second, it now appears that the MFA worker hired in Ohio may be the same person who has shot undercover video on other farms.   It’s to be expected that these tactics will be tried again and again, as long as undercover activists are successful in getting hired on farms.

Third, we also are getting more and more reports of trucks, vans and other vehicles sitting parked outside livestock farms and/or following livestock trucks coming and going from our farms.   Remember ongoing use of these videos is key to their strategy, and they want as much undercover video as possible to feature – so consider this and the undercover employment tactics as their effort to build their video library of animal mistreatment.

Fourth, once this type of video is released, there is only so much anyone can do to ease the consumer concerns raised by the images – whether they are accurate or not is less important than addressing the negative visual they leave in consumers’ minds.  The best we can hope for is to manage and mitigate the worst of it and work hard to maintain consumer trust in today’s farming practices.  The best PR is to be responsible and to not let it happen in the first place.

So now, a few suggestions for farmers and the farm community about being extra-vigilant –and more:

1.       Do the right thing – above all else, make sure your farm is exceeding all expectations for animal care, cleanliness and environmental responsibility. Let’s not be our own worst enemy.

2.       Watch your back – and your neighbor’s back.  Pay attention to strange vehicles, and try and get license numbers off any suspicious vehicles.  Engage local law enforcement if needed.

3.       Hire the right people – do background checks, reference checks and ask for actual Social Security cards and other hiring documentation.  Seek counsel from an employment lawyer if needed.  Put new hires on probation and watch them closely.  If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.  And if a potential hire is suspicious, share that information with other farmers.  We already know MFA investigators have attempted to work undercover at many farms before they get hired at one – and that as soon as they’re done at one farm, they will move on to the next one.

4.       Empower your farm workers – Let them know of their importance as a team member in protecting your farm.  Ask your other workers how any new people are performing.  And let them know you expect them to immediately report any strange behaviors or if they suspect any undercover activity.

5.       Set codes of conduct for animal care – if you don’t have them, establish animal care standards and train your employees on those standards.  Require ANY farm worker that handles animals to sign a written Code of Conduct.  This is important both for animal care protocol and to verify all employees understand their shared obligation.

6.       Stay active and in touch with your industry leadership – there is so much happening in livestock and poultry farming right now, you can’t afford to NOT be engaged.  Likewise, share any information you gather in your local community about any of these activities.  We need to know as early as possible if there are issues bubbling up.

7.       Maintain strict security procedures on your farms – now more than ever, keep your doors locked and be mindful of what’s happening inside and outside your operations.  Don’t let your absence or a false sense of security be your downfall.

8.       Alert your local law enforcement – let them know there have been a number of issues on farms across the country, and ask them to do a few extra “drive –bys” at your farm.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Again and above all else, do the right thing.   Farmers are responsible caretakers of their animals.  We care for them because we have an ethical obligation to do so, and our consumers expect us to exceed their expectations in order to maintain their trust.   Doing “what’s right” is always the best PR.

Hinda Mitchell provides counsel in issues management, crisis communications, image and reputation, media relations and strategic planning to farmers, agriculture groups and other food system organizations.  She directs activities in the Columbus, Ohio office of CMA, a leading national communications firm headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, specializing in agriculture and food system clients.  She can be reached at or 816-556-3142.

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