Big Meat: At War with Consumers

05/09/2016 02:59 pm ET Updated May 10, 2017

"Oftentimes the consumerist agenda may be a hidden one which should be disclosed," a once-secret tobacco industry memo declared, touting the industry's pending war on the Consumers Union. During the 1980s and '90s, the consumer advocacy group published, via its highly-respected Consumer Reports, damning science about the effects of secondhand smoke, which put it in Big Tobacco's crosshairs.

Today, Consumer Reports finds itself the target of another public health menace: Big Meat.

It's no secret that the meat lobby has long battled environmental and animal welfare supporters. With climate experts condemning animal agribusiness for causing global warming, and with the most-read American columnists writing that torturing animals is the industry's standard practice, it's perhaps not surprising that meat industry execs tend not to be card-carrying members of Sierra Club or The Humane Society of the United States.

But now, the meat industry is picking a fight with consumers. It recently attacked Consumer Reports, arguing the magazine should stick to reviewing cars and toasters rather than pursuing an "anti-animal ag agenda." Just why would Big Meat suspect Consumer Reports is against animal agriculture?

Perhaps it was the consumer advocacy magazine's report that 97 percent of chicken breasts sold in U.S. grocery stores are contaminated with potentially harmful, fecally-transmitted pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. Or maybe it was the study that found 69 percent of pork is infected with a dangerous bacteria that causes fever, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. And then there was the report showing that more than half of the raw ground turkey sold in the U.S. tested positive for fecal contamination.

That's right: because Consumer Reports, a consumer advocacy publication, disclosed science about dangerously high levels of contamination in our meat supply, it gets pegged as being opposed to animal agriculture. Talk about shooting the messenger.

With Big Meat lashing out as Big Tobacco did decades ago, it's no surprise that consumers are changing how they eat -- with countless now practicing the Three Rs: reducing or replacing consumption of animal products and refining their diets by switching higher animal welfare products.

Indeed, people are eating more plant-based meals than ever before. "Plant protein is in," reported Meatingplace, the industry's own trade publication. "Increasingly, those who eat meat are looking to diversify their protein sources."

The meat industry knows it's losing ground to plant-based proteins, but instead of cleaning up its act it goes on the defensive. A more rational solution would be to give animals less filthy and cruel conditions and stop pumping them with antibiotics that breed drug-resistance bacteria. Instead, Big Meat's response mirrors the tobacco industry's, which was to attack consumer advocates for caring about public health.

We know how well the strategy worked for Big Tobacco, with per capita consumption having plummeted over the last several decades. It seems likely it'll work just as well for Big Meat.