Jolley: HumaneWatch comes out swinging, HSUS comes out slinging

Meatingplace published a story about the Humane Society of the United States complaining to the USDA's Office of the Inspector General that the National Pork Board (NPB) has used federal checkoff dollars to support the National Pork Producers Council's lobbying efforts.

That's against the rules.  But a note from that showed up in my in box at about the same time seems to suggest that if HSUS wants to call the NPB's kettle black, they're doing it from a very dark pot.  HumaneWatch had just looked at the most recent HSUS tax forms.

NPB's response to the charge was formed by knowing how HSUS went after the poultry industry. Their management team wasn't about to step on any of that animal rights group's well-known land mines.  In response to the complaint, National Pork Board CEO Chris Novak told Meatingplace "We [have] watched HSUS use a continuing pattern of legal attacks on the poultry industry which were designed to force them to the table with HSUS. We think the same pattern of attacks is now focused on the pork industry."

Novak continued his aggressive response by saying "It's disappointing but we are prepared, and believe that we have made proper investments. We are cognizant of the law, we work closely with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service to ensure that the investments are proper, and we welcome the chance to have this discussion with USDA or anyone else in terms of the work that we do on behalf of the industry."

Dave Warner, director of communications for the National Pork Producers Council, emailed this statement to Meatingplace, "This latest attack by the Humane Society of the United States against America's family pig farmers, like the animal activist's previous ones, won't work and won't scare pig farmers into abandoning practices that protect the well-being of their animals."

And then he delivered this smack across the Pacellian cheek: "HSUS's charges are baseless, without merit and frivolous. Its claim that pork checkoff funds have been misused is patently and demonstrably false."

It can't get any plainer than that unless Mr. Warner wanted to include a suggestion that Wayne Pacelle can go to Hellenback, a small, mostly deserted town in central Iowa if memory serves.

HumaneWatch scrutinized the internal operations of HSUS by sifting through their IRS Form 990, a publicly available tax return that nonprofits have to file with the federal government. HumaneWatch was delighted that public support for HSUS is down.

According to HumaneWatch, contributions and grants to HSUS were down by about $8.5 million in 2011 compared to 2010. HSUS's total revenue actually decreased by more than 10 percent, mostly due to the drop in public support and drop in investment income relative to 2010.

Direct aid to local pet shelters continues to come from HSUS's chump change drawer, making up less than 0.25 percent of their budget. HumaneWatch, generous to a fault in their estimation of HSUS true motives,decided to include spay/neuter and other grants made to shelters.  It doubled the HSUS investment to approximately 0.5 percent.

In defense of HSUS, they have said repeatedly that they are not in business to be a major funder of local pet shelters.  Their marketing department, however, has little trouble making that inference, though, when they show up after events likehurricane Katrina or Sandy with heavy-handed fund raising appeals.  Dollars that might have gone to local shelters are diverted to HSUS for use in national campaigns.

The Better Business Bureau did clear HSUS when a complaint about their fund-raising was launched. Allegedly, their full-page newspaper ads, television ads and communications were misleading. Among other things, the complainant noted that "HSUS appeals feature images of dogs and cats," yet "HSUS gives only 1 percent of its budget to local shelters."

After reviewing HSUS's 2011 appeals, they found that "most did not specifically reference assistance to local shelters but identified other HSUS program activities. In addition, although HSUS cash grants to local shelters are a small portion of its program activities, The HSUS states that it provides direct and indirect assistance to shelters through training, publications, spay/neutering promotions, adoption campaigns, animal rescue and other activities."

So 1 percent is good enough to meet the BBB's standards of excellence.

With the tax data in hand, HumaneWatch decided to put HSUS on the front burner and turn it on high. Here are some of the butt-burning details divulged by this watchdog group:

  • HSUS had fundraising-related expenses of $48.1 million, or a whopping 38 percent of its total budget.
  • HSUS paid $7.7 million to Quadriga Art, a fundraising consultant recently exposed by CNN that is reportedly under investigation in New York and California. Between 2009 and 2011, HSUS paid Quadriga about $25 million.
  • HSUS also reported paying about $333,000 to Infocision Management, whose questionable practices were exposed by Bloomberg this fall.
  • HSUS added another $2.4 million to its pension plan, bringing the total to about $17 million since Wayne Pacelle took over as CEO in 2004.
  • Pacelle pulled in just under $300,000 in compensation, bringing his total paycheck since joining HSUS to about $3 million.
  • HSUS's All Animals magazine had a circulation of about 530,000, a better estimate of HSUS's true membership size, since the magazine is included with a $25 membership. (HSUS likes to claim it has a "constituency" of 11 million, which inflates its influence greatly.)

Now I have two questions.  I know HumaneWatch and their background.  HSUS will claim they are a special interest group funded by groups out to get Wayne's world, another pot vs kettle argument.  Does the data they wrung out of those tax forms ring true and cast a dark shadow over HSUS activities?  And does HSUS have a case against the National Pork Board or are they just engaging in some legal shenanigans in order to force NPB to the bargaining table?

In my opinion, HumaneWatch has a case and HSUS doesn't.  And NPB isn't about to lie down and give in to HSUS demands.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.