Key Issue: Industrialized Food Production

As part of ProxyDemocracy’s series on social and environmental issues in the 2010 voting season, we examine industrialized food production. The Sustainable Investments Institute (SI2), a research center based in Washington, produced the series.

Posted by Matthew Keenan at April 14, 2010 at 17:05 PM

As part of ProxyDemocracy’s series on social and environmental issues in the 2010 voting season, we examine industrialized food production. The Sustainable Investments Institute (SI2), a research center based in Washington, produced the series. This report was written by Julia Beth Proffitt, an analyst with SI2 and founder of LanX, a project designed to support local communities and economies by providing sustainable investment opportunities for small to mid-size enterprises.

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A total of 17 shareholder resolutions filed in 2010 address industrialized food production. Campaigns to change corporate behavior in the area of industrial agriculture and food processing have focused on animal rights and animal welfare, emphasizing the abuses entailed by factory farming.

The primary players have been animal advocacy organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States. Recently, however, the questions on this set of issues have expanded beyond animal welfare to include broader concerns about how the current food system affects public health, worker welfare, ecological systems and local and regional economies and communities.

Nearly all the 2010 food industry proposals do address the treatment of animals, though the framing of these proposals brings in broader concerns. Specifically, most target poultry industry practices, with two areas of concentration: cage-free eggs and controlled atmosphere killing.

A few new resolutions from religious investors address the impact of industrial farming on the environment and the practice of non-therapeutic antibiotic use in farm animals. The Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility has a campaign to reform practices in the meat industry.

Cage-free eggs: At least four proposals filed this year encourage restaurants and retailers to gradually switch to cage-free eggs. Discussions prompted by the resolutions have led to company action that satisfied the proponents and has resulted in two withdrawals so far. Although there are those who dispute the merits of cage-free eggs, the eggs apparently have significant appeal for a large niche market, which may explain companies’ willingness to move on this issue.

Slaughter: The largest number of proposals encourages the phasing-in of poultry slaughtered using controlled atmosphere killing, which is presented as a more humane alternative to the dominant industry practice of using electric immobilization before slaughter. Both techniques are designed to render birds unconscious to eliminate pain perception before slaughter begins.

Company positions on this issue have been more rigid than with cage-free eggs, with few firms willing to make the switch. Industry experts argue that the current stunning practice is humane and effective, whereas proposal advocates argue that it is not foolproof and that electric immobilization failures result in inhumane treatment of the birds, creating hazards for workers and compromising the quality and safety of the food product.

Both types of proposals described above address practices that are outside the bounds of current federal law. For example, the 1978 Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act does not cover the slaughter of poultry, although the USDA does support humane considerations in its description of “good commercial practices.” Although several states have recently passed legislation bearing on poultry husbandry, the living conditions, treatment and slaughter of poultry are guided largely by voluntary standards.

Laboratory animals and animal cruelty: Separately, just one or two proposals seem likely to come to votes on animal testing. Most of the 17 resolutions on testing and cruelty focused on indirect support of animal research, by requesting that companies consider limits on charitable giving to entities that conduct animal research; this fell afoul of the Security and Exchange Commission’s prohibition on contributions proposals that mention specific causes. Other company challenges of additional proposals on labeling and animal cruelty look likely to succeed at the SEC.

References

General Background
• U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service: Humane Handling of Livestock and poultry: An Educational Guidebook Based on FSIS Policies. This is a publication intended to help animal processors remain in compliance with the current Federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.(http://www.fsis.usda.gov/pdf/humane_handling_booklet.pdf)
• Sustainable Egg Coalition
(http://www.sustainableeggcoalition.org)

Animal Welfare• Michigan State University College of Law: Animal Legal & Historical Web Center. (http://www.animallaw.info/)
• Humane Society of the United States: Farm Animal Welfare Science and Research.(http://www.humanesociety.org/news/publications/whitepapers/farm_animal_welfare.html)
• European Animal Welfare Quality Program. (http://www.welfarequality.net/everyone)
• USDA National Agricultural Library.
(http://riley.nal.usda.gov/nal_display/index.php?info_center=8&tax_level=1&tax_subject=10)

Industrial Agriculture
• Union of Concerned Scientists: Impact of Industrial Agriculture.
(http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/science_and_impacts/impacts_industrial_agriculture/)

• Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
(http://www.ncifap.org/)

• WATT AgNet.com (Agribusiness news) (http://www.wattagnet.com/)
• USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service: Animal Feeding Operations (http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/TECHNICAL/afo/)

Poultry-Specific Issues• PETA Report: Controlled Atmosphere vs. Electric Immobilization.
(http://www.peta.org/cak/CAK+report.pdf)

• National Chicken Council
(http://www.nationalchickencouncil.com)

• United Egg Producers
(http://www.unitedegg.org/)