First published in the Sunday Times on 18th December 2016.
I received an email from the Humane League recently. At first I assumed it was from the 1980s band that sang about the waitress in a cocktail bar. Unfortunately it was rather more serious — an example of activist bullying.
The Humane League is an American charity that seems to specialise in worrying about chickens, among other animals. Though it doesn’t really spell this out on its website, it is clear from the league’s social media activity that its mission is to persuade us all to become vegans. It launches “hard-hitting . . . campaigns targeting specific companies”. Which makes it sound less like a charity and more like an army fighting a war. Hardly kindly or benevolent, which are synonyms for humane.
Its email to me was headlined “Public campaign against Patisserie Valerie” — a business I chair. It threatened: “We will be creating customised websites and videos, drafting online petitions, running online advertisements, purchasing outdoor ads near your locations, holding in-person demos and distributing literature to customers outside your shops. We will also contact your business partners and other affiliations and incorporate them into our public campaign. We plan to launch this campaign as early as tomorrow.”
Our crime? Using eggs sourced from caged hens. Except that we don’t use eggs from caged hens — we use exclusively free-range eggs, both as whole eggs and as an ingredient. Even when I explained that the charity’s information about us was wrong, Pru Elliott, the British representative of this US multinational, insisted that we produce a public statement about our policy drafted according to its terms. Instead of making an announcement, I thought I’d write this article.
In my opinion, this sort of systematic intimidation is very close to blackmail. The legal definition of that crime is “making unwarranted demands with menaces”, which is exactly what the Humane League is doing. It boasts that it has “worked productively” with retail and food service companies to force them to use free-range eggs.
What I believe this means is threatening to disrupt their business unless they comply with the charity’s diktats. The league takes credit for the way companies change their egg sourcing — no doubt so it can make claims about how effective it is and raise money to pay for its 11 offices across America.
As it happens, I keep some hens and agree that free-range eggs are better. But these types of coercive tactics are unacceptable — especially coming from an organisation that must surely have public good at its heart. Moreover, selling non-free-range eggs is perfectly legal and safe. Why should the Humane League decide what products we sell? What will be next? Should meat eating be banned? I’m sure the charity would be pleased if it was. But only 3% of the UK population is actually vegetarian (let alone vegan). Groups such as the Humane League can use digital and other means to browbeat companies into submission: is that how a free society should operate?
We employ 2,800 hard-working staff and serve millions of customers a year.
They decide what we sell — because they would go elsewhere if they didn’t like our goods.
Possibly the aspect I resent most about the Humane League’s campaign is the imperialist nature of its activities here. It is not a British charity of any kind, and appears to have no legal UK presence save Ms Elliott. Have any of the young do-gooders who run the Humane League actually even been to Britain? Are there no local problems for them to solve in the US? I suppose the charity follows in the footsteps of the giant American multinationals such as Google, Apple and Facebook, here to control our habits — or else.
Unfortunately, many companies run scared of such activist pressure. Their PR advisers recommend they cave in because the bad publicity might hurt sales. Of course that is exactly what the activists want. It reminds me a little of the obsessive assaults suffered by a greyhound racing business I used to own, and of the attacks on pharmaceutical companies that use animals in research. Luckily the law cracked down hard on animal activists such as Shac (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty) and a number went to jail. Of course, their violent tactics were far worse than the Humane League’s campaigns.
Organisations such as the Humane League never want to hear about the cost of groceries for ordinary people. These groups demonise modern agriculture, but it is incredibly productive and delivers an extraordinary cornucopia of food at amazing prices. It is hardly faultless in all its techniques, but for millions of poorer citizens in Britain, America and elsewhere, 21st-century farming makes food affordable. But if businesses are forced to obey the whims of every pressure group, many would be unable to trade and choice, employment and investment would be diminished.
Be it animal rights, fracking, drug discovery or environmental issues, law-abiding companies should not allow themselves to be seen as puppet villains by activists exploiting the naivety of the public. Companies must stand up against scare tactics and must not allow tiny minorities to decree what we can eat and sell.