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The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has been pressuring egg farmers for years to go “cage-free.” Mind you, HSUS doesn’t really support cage-free eggs—as an animal rights group, it wants to get rid of the egg industry entirely, by its own admission—but it sees cage-free as a step in the right direction for its agenda.
So what happened when some egg farmers went along and gave their chickens more space a few years ago? HSUS complained to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. You can’t make this stuff up.
HSUS’s complaint was that egg producers were using an animal welfare program as a front for price fixing, and several years ago, some food retailers sued egg farmers on those grounds. Egg farmers, under the program (called “UEP Certified”), reduced the number of hens per cage, thus increasing the space available to each bird. But the retailers alleged the real point of the program was to reduce the supply of eggs and therefore raise the price, even though, according to Feedstuffs, restaurants and supermarkets had ironically been pushing egg farmers to adopt animal welfare guidelines.
The litigation is complicated and involves many parties, and some of the egg company defendants have settled (and, for the record, we don’t have a position on this suit). But interestingly, two companies filed a counter-complaint last month against the food retailers. The egg companies claim that the food retailers knew everything all along, but were actually pressured by the egg industry into the certification program in order to not be attacked by HSUS and PETA:
[D]iscovery has revealed that the Counterclaim Defendant DAPs conspired to induce the Counterclaim Plaintiffs [egg companies] and the broader egg industry to implement and maintain the UEP Certified Program, with full knowledge of all material aspects of that Program, as part of a deliberate plan to avoid being the subject of high-profile public relations attacks by animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (“PETA”) and the Humane Society of the United States (“HSUS”). In this context, their lawsuits can only be understood as a bad faith and opportunistic attempt to extort money from the Counterclaim Plaintiffs.
This puts a spotlight on, for lack of a better characterization, the mafia-like tactics of HSUS. Look at it this way: Food retailers don’t want to be accused of animal cruelty. They have brands to protect. When HSUS shows up at their door, the message is clear: “Nice business you’ve got there. Shame if something happened to it.” And more often than not, companies cave in to HSUS’s demand du jour and pass the buck by making demands of their suppliers. HSUS then claims a P.R. “win.”
Recently, for instance, HSUS has been demanding companies change their pork sourcing to suppliers that don’t use veterinarian-approved maternity pens to house pregnant pigs. Some companies have agreed. It’s shortsighted, but understandably easier, for a restaurant to make a wishy-washy pledge to do something in 10 years—and get HSUS off its back today—than to potentially draw HSUS’s ire with a negative, contrived P.R. campaign.
It’s not about what consumers want—it’s about avoiding attacks from the HSUS/PETA crowd. The trouble is that giving a schoolyard bully your lunch money never makes him go away. You have to fight back, as a circus company is doing by taking HSUS and two of its employees to court with a federal RICO lawsuit. That suit alleges HSUS had a role in a scheme involving malicious litigation and illegal witness payments, and the whole kerfuffle could see an HSUS affiliate bankrupted.
Amusingly, WATT editor Terence O’Keefe has a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that HSUS should be sued for price fixing. Why? Because its Proposition 2 ballot initiative in California to mandate more cage space for hens will reduce supply and drive up egg prices—exactly what HSUS is complaining about with the egg industry program.
It’s a joke, of course, since you can’t litigate against HSUS for hypocrisy. But HSUS can be sued if it allegedly violated anti-racketeering laws. And it can be investigated for potentially deceptive fundraising by a state attorney general. Hopefully justice will be served.