The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has been in action for years fighting for abused and forsaken companion animals — but some people may not know that HSUS has also been in the ring protecting farm animals. HSUS’ Farm Animal Protection campaign highlights underreported issues within the factory farm industry.
As a seasoned farm animal advocate, Matthew Prescott, outreach director for the Farm Animal Protection campaign at HSUS, spoke with Vegan Mainstream about what these campaigns entail, how HSUS is an advocate for all animals and how we can each do our part.
Vegan Mainstream: What is your role at HSUS?
Matthew Prescott: I am a food policy director for HSUS and I work to help large food companies implement humane-minded purchasing policies and also to promote our meat reduction efforts like Meatless Mondays at the institutional level.
The Farm Animal Protection campaign is the division that I work in [at HSUS]. I’ve been focused professionally on farm animal protection issues for about the last 11 years.
VM: What was your activism career like before HSUS?
MP: Throughout the last decade, I’ve worked on farm animal protection issues, specifically helping large food companies and other large buyers of food adopt purchasing policies that take into consideration animal welfare. For example, helping them move toward more humane supply chains, whether that’s switching to products like cage-free eggs rather than battery cage eggs, or implementing Meatless Mondays programs at their locations. Before coming to HSUS I worked at PETA. Before that I was at Farm Sanctuary.
VM: What are some of the nuances within the Farm Animal Protection campaign?
MP: We work primarily through three channels. One is public education helping individual consumers make informed choices about the food they buy, whether that is incorporating more vegan and vegetarian meals into their diets, which is a large program of ours, or helping people switch what meat they do continue eating to more humane sources.
The other channel is corporate outreach, through which we help major fast food companies, grocery companies, [etc.] create policies to move their supply chains to more animal-friendly channels. The third channel is public policy, helping spearhead and pass legislation that will protect farm animals at least from some of the worst abuses like confinement and cages, all that kind of nasty stuff.
VM: You work a lot with battery cages and that sort of thing. What are some of the other big “offenders” or issues that you work on?
MP: When it comes to animal welfare initiatives, the program we’re most heavily [involved with] is with regard to the confinement of farm animals and the way they are, like battery-caged hens, kept in cages and crates. Gestation crates for breeding pigs is another major priority for us. Also, the confinement of veal calves in crates.
VM: What are some of the things for which you’ve seen the most positive response or the most action?
MP: It seems like nowadays everyone is talking about plant-based diets. When I started working on these issues, the types of discussion that we’re seeing now in the major public arena were almost unfathomable. We’ve got now a former president, Bill Clinton, who is an outspoken advocate for veganism. We’ve got some of the nations largest, most prominent and respected celebrities like Ellen and Oprah, with their own official websites promoting veganism with vegan starter kits online. We’re seeing now a much more serious discussion of these issues than ever before in history.
VM: How or why have you seen the conversation change from discussions of protecting animals to focusing on veganism as a specific way of doing that?
MP: I think it’s always been a part of the equation, but for 99.99 percent of human history, eating was basically boiled down to getting the most number of calories in the cheapest possible way. It hasn’t been until recently that people have started incorporating environmental concerns, or animal welfare concerns or even health concerns into that equation. As that evolution has happened, it’s naturally turned toward the amount of meat we consume. What’s been wonderful to see is that there’s a huge agreement now with a huge percentage of the population, that regardless of how we’re treating animals, we’re just eating way too many of them.
VM: How did HSUS transition from focusing on domestic animals to talking about farm animals?
MP: We’ve always worked on farm animal issues, it just wasn’t that much of a visible part of our organization. Even going back to 1958, HSUS was partially responsible for helping implement the Humane Methods [of Livestock] Slaughter Act. We’ve always been active on issues of industrial animals, whether for food or for fur, but in the last six or seven years, we’ve become more heavily involved in those issues and more vocal about them.
VM: For consumers, why do you think there is a disconnect between the way we see farm animals and the way we see our cats and dogs?
MP: I don’t know that there is a disconnect, per se. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that virtually nobody is in favor of cruelty to farmed animals. The Farm Bureau itself studied these issues and found that 95 percent of Americans think farm animals should be treated well. I don’t think the disconnect is between what people want for pets and what they want for farm animals. I think the disconnect is understanding just how rough the vast majority of farm animals have it in this country and changing their behavior to address that. That’s what’s been changing more and more these days as people are starting to connect the dots on this issue.
VM: Without giving away any trade secrets, what are some of the strategies and tactics HSUS implements?
MP: We work very hard to pass legislation. We’ve now passed eight laws in eight different states to eliminate some or all forms of extreme farm animal confinement from those states. Laws that we’ve spearheaded or championed have passed in eight states outlawing gestation crate confinement of pigs. We’re working very hard to close the legal gap between what people want for animals and what farm animals are actually given.
We work to help mainstream American companies, like McDonald’s most recently, to create policies that will at least improve conditions for animals in their supply chain. We’ve been very successful in that regard, really moving corporate America toward more humane buying practices, which is then causing the industry itself (the pork industry and egg industry) to shift their animal welfare programs. There’s a consumer education component, helping individual consumers make buying choices for the betterment of farm animals and helping them connect the dots between what they might want farm animals to get, or what they think farm animals deserve and what those animals are actually being given.
VM: Does HSUS partner with other organizations?
MP: We work very closely with other animal protection organizations, environmental groups, with health advocacy groups, with worker rights organizations, with labor organizations, all kinds of groups.
VM: What have some of the biggest successes been since you’ve been involved with HSUS?
MP: I think most recently persuading McDonald’s to start shifting entirely away from gestation crates to more humane models has definitely been one of them. Passing laws that actually make it a crime to confine animals in cages and crates is another. Just helping shift the public consciousness to understand more that as a society we’re eating way too much meat and that there are healthy, delicious vegetarian and vegan meals that people can incorporate more of into their diet that will help the earth, ourselves and animals.
VM: You’re working a lot on the supply chain. Do you do any work with schools and school lunches?
MP: Very much. We have a large program helping institutional food buyers, I guess you’d call them - whether that’s school districts or individual schools, hospitals or corporate cafeterias - incorporate more vegetarian meals into their meal programs. We’ve helped dozens and dozens of these groups adopt Meatless Mondays programs through which they’re serving countless more vegan meals every year to their customers and also promoting the idea of Meatless Mondays to their guests.
VM: How do you balance your professional life and your activist life?
MP: The two can be one and the same. Organizations like HSUS make it very easy for people who care deeply about animal protection issues to take that passion and transition into a professional career working full-time to improve the lives of those animals we care so deeply about. We make it easy by providing ample opportunities for people who are interested in being a lawyer, or a lobbyist, or [for those who want to be communications professionals, in corporate communications, or education]. All of these things are possible within the HSUS model. It’s a wonderful opportunity for people who care about animals to parlay that passion into a full-time, long-term career.