Consumers have been led for years to believe California cows are happy, which is why many were sickened when images surfaced of a washed-up milker, too weak to stagger to slaughter, rolled, pushed and run over by a forklift operator.
The suffering cow covertly taped by the Humane Society of the U.S. prompted the biggest beef recall in U.S. history and contributed to sweeping legislation over the past 13 months designed to improve the lives of farm animals. But more important for farmers, it awakened the masses to the stark reality for many animals raised for food.
This October, as the animal protection organization taped workers at a Vermont veal slaughterhouse kicking and shocking day-old calves, the National Milk Producers Federation began urging dairy operators to participate in a new standard-of-care program it is launching in January.
The federation figures self-imposed regulations are better than having the Humane Society of the U.S. force them on the industry through referendums like the one it championed in California that banned cramped cages for chickens, pigs and veal calves.
"Clearly the animal rights community is much more emboldened and aggressive than they have been in the past," said federation spokesman Chris Galen. "We need to play offense."
The protocols in the National Dairy Farm Program are a check list for everything from providing clean drinking water, to foot care to euthanasia. The idea is that milk processors whose dairy operators are shown to follow the guidelines will be able to assure restaurants and supermarket chains that their products are cruelty free, something consumers are becoming conditioned to demand.
After watching the Humane Society shepherd laws in six states to keep animals out of cramped cages, dairy marketing officials are preparing for scrutiny. They believe the Humane Society-led ban this year on tail docking at dairies in California, the nation's No. 1 dairy state, signaled a new focus on the milk industry.
"All of these things are harbingers of a different environment," Galen said. "A whole variety of things are changing in society."
That change has come over several years on multiple fronts: food movements that encourage consumers to connect with local farmers; authors such as Michael Pollan who write about the politics and processes of factory farming and food safety issues; and a Humane Society president, Wayne Pacelle, who believes that the collective level of suffering among the nation's 10 billion farm animals exceeds all others.
The organization stops short of calling for the elimination of factory farms. "It's not a matter of creating Old McDonald's-type conditions," said Paul Shapiro, who heads the nonprofit's End Factory Farming campaign. "Our goal is to reduce the suffering these animals endure."
California's Proposition 2, the 2008 ballot initiative that by 2015 will free egg-laying chickens from their cages, marked the animal protection group's most public and successful foray from its historic campaigns to stop the clubbing of baby seals in Canada and dog fighting and puppy mills in the U.S.
The landslide victory came despite threats of higher prices — anywhere from a penny an egg more to 25 percent more per carton.
The animal welfare group has convinced some of the country's largest users — fast food restaurants such as Wendy's, Burger King, Starbucks and Dennys, and retailers such as Safeway and Costco — to make at least a gradual switch to cage-free eggs. Red Robin will go totally cage free by the end of 2010.
When the International House of Pancakes refused in September, the Humane Society unleashed 11 million letter-writing members and recorded a commercial with HBO's Bill Maher, who dubbed the California-based chain the "International House of Pain." By December, IHOP promised to "begin testing" the use of cage-free eggs.
A staff of 30 attorneys — up from three when Wayne Pacelle took the helm five years ago — file lawsuits against factory farming operations they believe operate outside of the law on everything from pollution to potential price fixing.
In an effort to make factory farming less appealing, they petitioned the EPA in September to force emissions from the manure at confined animals operations such as dairies to comply with the Clean Air Act.
The clout amassed by the organization with a $157 million annual budget means it sometimes can score victories without mounting a fight. In Michigan, lawmakers and the agriculture industry agreed this year to Prop 2-type legislation when the Humane Society threatened a statewide initiative. Maine passed a similar bill. And in March, the Obama Administration outlawed the using of downer cows for food, a direct result of the cow and the forklift.
The society now is gearing up in Ohio for a November 2010 initiative similar to Prop 2. Pacelle said the agriculture industry "dug in its heels" and decided to fight rather than negotiate.
Until now, farmers have been on the defensive, arguing in costly elections that they are not as they have been portrayed, and that the videos showing abuse are isolated incidents.
Then in October United Egg Producers paid for journalists from across the country to travel to Colorado to tour an egg farm and discuss post-Prop 2 legislation and "the ethics of large scale animal agriculture."
Dairymen also aren't waiting for the Humane Society's next move.
In November, the California Milk Advisory Board released 15 mini-documentaries on its Web site, seen 95,000 times so far, showing the lives of farmers. As the sun rises, multigenerational dairymen in idyllic settings talk about the affection they have for cows and the family members with whom they work.
"Each one is ... dispelling the myth that California farms are run by cold, uncaring 'corporations,'" said Michael Freeman, the board's vice president of advertising.