Meat of the matter: The upside of protests

When activists draw a line in the sand, even folks sympathetic to their cause are forced to admit that hardcore veganism isn't for them. So to all the protesters, I say, "Right on, veggies!

There is a growing wave of protests by vegan activists against Whole Foods Market stores, and I think it's a terrific development.

One of the latest in this series was a demonstration this week at a Whole Foods store in Washington, D.C., which was reported on by political reporter Olivia Nuzzi. She wrote that, "The demonstrators were thin, they wore backpacks, they carried white carnations, and one of them walked a medium-sized poodle. On their white, red and black placards, they declared UNTIL EVERY ANIMAL IS FREE and IT'S NOT FOOD, IT'S VIOLENCE."

The protests are being orchestrated by the group Direct Action Everywhere to create a backlash against "speciesism."

Speciesism, of course, presumes that all sentient creatures enjoy the same moral status. Thus the mission of activists like the Whole Foods protestors is "total animal liberation," putting a stop to discrimination on the basis of species.

"We are staging a nonviolent demonstration to disrupt speciesism, which is mass violence against animals across the United States," said Zachary Groff, a Direct Action Everywhere spokesman.

I want to encourage these true believers to persevere, to raise their voices even louder, to activate their schedules and stage as many demonstrations as possible in as many Whole Foods stores as they can target.

In fact, I am hopeful that the day may come soon when every visit to a Whole Foods store will be marked by an organized protest against the chain's marketing of meat and dairy products, even though they are marketed as being from humanely raised and lovingly-cared-for animals.

I would love it if every time shoppers were headed for the natural health and beauty products, or were cruising the organic produce bins or maybe while they searched for just the right herbal remedy to enhance their alternative lifestyle they had to run a gauntlet of sign-waving activists demonizing Whole Foods and demanding they sell anything derived from animal agriculture.

It would be even better if they were shouted at and berated for even looking at the free-range poultry or the cage-free eggs or the grassfed beef.

I hope and pray that protesters pound home the message that as spokesperson person Goff articulated to the Daily Beast reporter, "Whole Foods sells its products as being humane, responsibly raised and other taglines, but we know deep down that there is no humane way to kill someone who does not want to die."

Yes, a thousand times "Yes!"

Right on, man. That's a statement I would love to hear repeated every time anyone walks into a Whole Foods store anywhere in North America, and let me explain why.

A choice of alternatives

On the issue of animal welfare, there are four basic groups of people, segmented on the basis of their level of concern for the humane treatment of livestock.

On opposite ends of the spectrum are the extremists, who are either passionate vegans, like the Whole Foods protestors, and diehard carnivores, who couldn't care less how animals are raised, just as long as they end up in the meat case or on the menu. Forget nudging either group off their positions. Not gonna happen.

In the middle are two much larger groups, which for purposes of discussion can be stereotyped as liberal and conservative. I know that's a wildly unfair characterization, but bear with me.

So-called conservatives buy on price, ignore organic positioning and consider meat, milk and eggs as dietary staples, regardless of they were produced and processed.

So-called liberals appreciate label claims like "free-range," prefer "natural" to processed and while they're willing to consume animal foods, they tend to choose products branded as eco- and animal-friendly. It's this group that is the core customers of Whole Foods, and for the most part they believe that the supermarket chain cares as deeply as they do and puts more effort into providing humanely produced options than any of their competitors.

That level of trust among its core customers, in fact, is the reason that beginning about 10 years ago, Whole Foods began moving away from third-party certifications of animal welfare and began developing their own production and handling standards which of course they claim are way tougher than any others.

So what would be the worst outcome of protests directed against the animal foods marketed by Whole Foods" (allegedly) ultra-humane producers and processors?

A loss of trust in the integrity of the company's positioning as the grocery chain leader in ethical food production.

I say the best way to ensure that the concerned-yet-common-sensical consumer segment that patronizes Whole Foods doesn't climb aboard the Good Ship Vegan is to make that choice an extreme one. According to Direct Action Everywhere, harvesting livestock not matter how humanely done is immoral, so buying "alternative" foods is not an option.

And if your only two choices are embracing pure, undistilled veganism, or shutting out the activist noise machine, most people will choose the latter.

That would be a very good thing.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator