Coles & Animals Australia: unlikely bedfellows?

I’ll start with something most of us can agree on – Coles are hypocrites. A partnership to sell bags for the Animals Australia ‘Make it Possible’ campaign to ‘end factory farming’ is a fairly brazen case of corporate whitewashing (or greenwashing, or whatever colour makes them look like ethical corporate citizens). If Coles supported the Make it Possible campaign by, say, refusing to sell pork and poultry from intensive production systems, that would constitute a meaningful ethical contribution. Selling bags aimed at ending ‘factory farming’ while intensively grown pork and poultry are on the shelves is, by definition, hypocritical.

But let’s put that aside for a moment. Surely any promotion of more ethical animal husbandry is a step in the right direction, even if it comes from one of the biggest sellers of what many deem unethical production systems? Meh, who knows. But what we do know is that most Coles supermarkets still don’t even offer free-range pork on their shelves, and their free-range poultry options, when they exist at all, are of dubious standards. So do these bags actually advocate that we don’t shop at Coles for pork and poultry? Ironically, it would seem so.

If you want to see an example of ethical meat retailers making a real difference, check out the wonderful folks at Feather and Bone, who endured some backlash for their support for the Voiceless Eyelevel project aimed at reducing Australians’ meat consumption. They have explained their intentions eloquently, while re-iterating their strong support and advocacy for free-range producers.

While we’re all in furious agreement over the gobsmacking hypocrisy of Coles, I’ll move on to a more vexed question – why are farmers so outraged at Coles’ support for a campaign to end intensive animal farming?

It seems that the root of their concerns is that Animals Australia is ‘anti-animal-farming’. I have had some reservations about the group, but most are probably groundless, and may actually just be an unfortunate association with the vegan abolitionist organisation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Even most vegans I know don’t agree with PETA’s tactics, such as these awful ads.

I’ve seen Animals Australia referred to as a ‘vegan front group’, with a ‘vegan agenda’ that wants us all to stop eating meat, wearing leather, or using any part of an animal or its labour for our own purposes. This agenda, which is more accurately referred to as a vegan abolitionist agenda such as that promoted by PETA, is quite obviously at serious odds with the agenda of a livestock farmer. It is also at odds with the agenda of Coles and any other purveyor or consumer of animal products. It is also a very very small minority of the population who support this agenda. (Note that not all vegans are abolitionists, and some actively fight alongside ethical omnivores to promote more ethical animal husbandry.) So why the outrage? What real threat is there to farmers?

Some (including Animals Australia) have said that farmers don’t want to move away from intensive production systems, and are afraid to let consumers see the realities of their systems for fear of backlash, and that’s why they don’t like the Make it Possible campaign. And for some intensive producers, I’m sure that must be true.

But for the many many more extensive growers – sheep and cattle farmers for example (the vast majority of which are pasture-based systems in Australia) I think you can take their word at face value – they’re sick of being attacked by vegan abolitionists, and rightly or wrongly believe Animals Australia shares that agenda ultimately. Having been on the receiving end of the abuse that comes from those quarters, I can fully empathise with their sensitivity.

Tactically, though, I think the National Farmers Federation (NFF) made a mistake in so vehemently opposing the Coles/Animals Australia cross-promotion. Everyone can see that Coles are hypocrites, and no friend to farmers and rural communities. So who cares if they sell bags for a campaign that wants to ‘end factory farming’ – some of these bags will even carry ‘factory farmed’ meat, I imagine?!

Opposing the partnership may have served merely to make the NFF and its supporters look ‘pro factory farming’. But as I’ve already posited, I suspect most who opposed it are in fact just fed up with attacks from vegan abolitionists and attempts to destroy their livelihood (about which, of course, intensive producers are also concerned – these are real people paying real bills too. One may have less sympathy for their position, but surely we cannot ignore the social costs of food systems in transition as part of our ethical considerations. More on this in a future post.).

The only farmers under direct threat from the campaign are the intensive producers, and they’ve been under pressure for years as consumers gained greater awareness of the conditions and started voting with their dollars, first for free-range eggs, then chicken, and now pork. There’s a long way to go before we see all animals raised in conditions that are truly acceptable to the majority of the population, and most people’s budget will still dictate their purchasing habits ahead of their ethics. Financial reality is a difficult stakeholder to overrule, and shopping ethically takes a certain level of knowledge, will and culinary competence, not to mention transparency in the supply chain.

But as I wrote recently, the real losers in this stoush are animals in intensive production systems. The myopic vitriol of the vegan abolitionists, the defensiveness of the NFF, and the stunning hypocrisy of Coles won’t improve animal welfare on Australian farms – growers and eaters will with our choices and through respectful dialogue.

I take my hat off to the many growers and eaters across the country who are working to be the changes they wish to see in the world. I reckon Coles and proselytising vegan abolitionists, on the other hand, need to learn some lessons from Gandhi.

Published by

Tammi Jonas

The infrequent and imperfect yet impassioned musings of a farmer, meatsmith, mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and cultural commentator with a penchant for food and community.

20 thoughts on “Coles & Animals Australia: unlikely bedfellows?”

  1. corrrrrr – you tell ’em tammi!

    what a wonderfully penned blog post – one that delivers a steely hit (in a velvet conciliatory glove — unless you are a supermarket hypocrite or a vegan zealot of course!)

    keep the faith

  2. Hi Tammi,

    Thanks for this reflective piece, made all the more relevant because of your direct experience.

    I would also like to add that the losers in all of this are the growers, not only for the reasons outlined above, but because of the tendency to treat ‘farmers’ as some sort of collective and cohesive whole. This tendency is of course aided by the NFF’s tag line “The voice of Australian farmers”. Similarly, the media seem only too happy to assume the same cohesiveness, leading to the general feeling that the NFF is ‘a person’ rather than a peak lobby group with its own agenda.

    The point I am trying to make is that I doubt that any industry or endeavour is best served by a “single, strong voice” (NFF President 2012), particularly one which is currently consiidering a proposal to broaden its membership to include agricultural entities and agribusiness. I also doubt that growers, particularly small to mid scale, have been well served by this event. Today the NFF states on their website that they will not be bullied (agreed) but perhaps they should also be mindful that bullying most often occurs under the cover of a single strong voice.

    PS one of the success stories of the Sundance Film Festival 2013 was Moo Man – a film that captured “a wonderful, surprising relationship between a farmer and his animals”. While the tag line refers to Moo Man as “unconventional” I would argue (based on my current research studies and personal experience) that many “conventional” farmers have an equally close and caring relationship with their animals (even the ones destined for meat). Speaking of these relationships to the wider community however will involve trust – implying a willingness by farmers to be vulnerable to the actions and intentions of other parties and connoting a lack of certainty or perfect control as events unfold. Sadly the rhetoric of lobby groups such as the NFF (how many times have you heard what farmers need is greater certainty) does little to support these relations of trust, or their transformative potential. In other words I think that the actions of farmers such as Tammi and her family are not only embedded in a desire for transparency (and thus consumer confidence in their farming practice) but a willingness to positively accept vulnerability and uncertainty in the expectation of a positive outcome for them, their animals, and their customers (which, I note, should not confused with a willingness to be hurt!).

  3. My exact thoughts Tammi! Unable to put it into words as beautifully as you have though.

  4. Great post Tammi.
    I dont think one can assume that all of us recognise the hypocrisy of Coles, in fact I think this is part of the problem.
    I also challenge the notion that farmers are uneasy with Coles decision to get behind the Animals Australia ‘Make it possible’ campaign because of their reluctance to address intensive farming issues. The farmers are sensitive about the blame being aimed at them because what they’ve done is respond to the price points that the retail duopoly have enforced. In my opinion much of the blame for intensive farming practices lies at the feet of the duopoly, forcing farmers to come up with cheaper more intensive methods in order to remain viable yet alone make a decent living. Meanwhile the returns for supermarkets grows for shareholders, the fiscal difference being absorbed by the farmers.
    Adding insult to injury, there has been a cultural shift in perceptions from the public toward farmers. For most of my life the farmer has enjoyed hero status but in the last decade or so, this view has been sullied. Of course not all practitioners of farm management have made the right ethical, ecological or business decisions but the last straw might be the ignominy of being so publicly shafted by the organisations that have been calling the tune for the last two decades.

  5. One of the issues of course is that there are very few “factory farms” in Australia – in fact most of the information we see on this topic is based on overseas practices.

    We need to make some very clear distinctions between the misinformation and misunderstanding of what “factory” farms are especially with the term “intensive”. Further, someone told me today that farmers who had sheds that housed animals was proof of the “rampant factory farming occurring in Australia”.

    The conflicts between misunderstanding, biosecurity and operational issues is a wide divide and made wider by a set of people on one side convinced the other side are lying.

    Unfortunately, that goes for both sides of this debate.

  6. What a great comment, Lilly – thank you! Yes, a peak body for farmers is incredibly fraught given the ideological and practical spectrum we span. A bit like most politics, I guess. We’ve joined the VFF to ensure our voices are at least in there, but have some reservations about how marginal our voice is, of course. And even amongst free-range pig farmers, there is a great deal of diversity in daily management decisions, though certainly less difference than when compared with intensive growers.

    But I especially love your point about Moo Man, control, trust, and embracing uncertainty. Farmers are incredibly resilient, whether they set out to be or not, due to constant uncertainty in weather, water, animal and herd health, prices, market acceptance, and our power bills, just to name some of the more obvious variables. 😉 And I’ve seen plenty of farmers accept and work with that uncertainty in proactive and innovative ways, and totally agree that discourses of certainty and control are deeply problematic in our sector. (And yes, our willingness is not geared towards being open to insult and injury…) Thank you again.

  7. Thanks, Steve. I actually deliberated over that opening line – prevaricating between ‘many of us’, ‘most of us’, etc until I chose the punchiest option. 😉 But I agree that there’s still too much complicity in our own oppression from the hegemonic duopoly structures, if you will – though I’d attribute to farmers and consumers slightly more agency than you have here. I do think the duopoly has pushed farmers and consumers into less and less palatable options, but think farmers and eaters have more power to push back if they choose.

    The public perception shift is heartbreaking, I agree, and sadly the actions of the NFF over this issue will have driven that wedge in further, I fear. As I wrote, I understand their sensitivity, but I disagree with their subsequent response.

  8. Ah, such a useful point, Taiss. I thought about doing some unpacking of the terms ‘factory farm’ and ‘intensive production’, but decided against it to keep the post focused and of reasonable length. I usually avoid using ‘factory farm’ anymore as it’s emotive and usually will preclude a productive discussion with intensive growers. But if people are suggesting any farm with sheds used by animals are intensive, then we really do have an education problem to address! I’ll just get on that…

    And yes, the huge gap in understanding and trust of ‘sides’ in these debates has to be systematically dealt with as well – and being calm and respectful is a pretty good start, I reckon.

  9. Tammi, thanks – would just like to add that vulnerability includes “ridicule”. I remember speaking to a “conventional” farmer about how he spent every morning talking to his dairy cows, patting their heads, and telling them his problems. He noted that these shared moments complemented, even underpinned his practice, particularly with respect to decisions about their day to day care. At the end of our conversation he said your not going to write about that are you -Why? Because my farming neighbours might laugh at me, think I’m being nostalgic. In other words, while he trusted me with this information, it was difficult to make this ‘leap of faith’ to (what he perceived as) a more conservative audience better versed in the language of productivity gains and pasture control. So while the focus often falls on mechanisms to re-establish consumer trust ( or more correctly confidence) I suggest it might be time to also think about producer trust – a time when producers risk talking about these relations and affects as potentially integral to their daily practice and decision making rather than just some nostalgic, touchy-feely aside. Under these circumstances even the NFF might have to rethink how they frame what it means to be a responsive farmer/grower here and now, not then. I think you and co are proving a good example – without sounding too touchy-feely 🙂

  10. Great blog post- I am glad I am not the only one with issues about the Coles/ Animals Aust partnership. Its kind of bizarre an organisation who’s web campaign seems to make you feel guilty about eating any kind of meat is happy to support a company that’s wanting to bend the definitions on Free range to support its bottom line. I have questioned coles a number of times on what exactly their different terminologies for pork products mean. They used to sell ‘bred outdoors’ (which from what I could gather is like otway bred free range) that was then replaced by Sow Stall free, which when I finally got a response seemed less humane than their original standard. Needless to say I don’t buy pork products from Coles.

  11. There seems to be an over zealous rage against vegans thru this blog. Long term vegetarian here, who knows a lot of other vegetarians… and some vegans, the majority of whom are not angry with carnivores. They’ve just made a choice of their own. Let’s get that straight.
    I’m a donator to Animals Australia, and all the correspondence I’ve ever had from them is along the lines of reducing the incidence of unnecessary cruelty to animals, NOT forcing Australians to give up their seafood platter or sausage sizzle. And no hint of forcing farmers off the land. Let’s get that straight too. The Animals Australia website actually says they would like to encourage Australians to eat LESS meat.
    The area of NSW I live in is peppered with numerous chicken sheds. I have a couple quite near me and I’ve never seen a single chicken roaming a field, at any time of year . That seems to me to be ‘factory farming’. So to claim factory farming doesn’t exist in Australia, and that the majority of dairy farmers talk to their cows every morning is not what I experience locally. To be frank, I can hear the guy opposite effing and blinding at his cows every morning at 7am.
    I would definitely like to support ethically produced animal products locally, such as those being produced by Tammi, and similar farmers. Sadly, having arrived here from the UK a few years ago, I feel the UK scene is more developed in that area than here, and the domination of Coles and Woolworth’s is slowing the progress of Organic, paddock to plate type enterprises.
    As such, I agree, it was a bad look for the farmer’s peak body to come out so strongly against this bag campaign – flawed though it may have been.

  12. One of the consideration as to why the NFF became so angry is that Animals Australia destroyed the livelihood of many beef farmers. When the disastrous 4 corners programme exposed the inhume slaughtering of cattle in Indonesia, the farmers bore the brunt of that by losing cattle sales, lost their farms and homes. These inhumane practices were not the fault of the farmer, but they were punished. One can argue it was the responsibility of the NFF to ensure the humane slaughter of these animals, which clearly didn’t happen. So although Animals Australia felt it was doing the right thing, it didn’t think through the implications. But perhaps they didn’t care. I have in the past supported them but they are ill informed and very selective when it comes to pushing their agendas.

  13. Erica,
    You talk about the abuse of animals in those slaughterhouses, mention Four Corners, then blame Animals Australia.
    The ABC brought the abuse to the attention of the Australian public, and I believe thousands of ordinary members of the public contacted their local member of parliament to demand action. It was the action of the Labor government after Four Corners that has had a negative impact on the cattle farmers.
    Animals Australia are an advocacy group for animal welfare. You can’t expect them to witness maltreatment of animals and not publicise it. The live export industry has it’s own advocacy groups after all.
    There is no way any animal rights group is ever going to end meat eating, and hence farming. So I think the farmers trying to do the right thing should support efforts to raise standards, because it costs more money to produce ethical products, therefore ethical producers are at a market disadvantage to those cutting corners and often breaking rules.

  14. Hello Tammi –

    Incredibly articulate blog capturing the nuances of this situation. Too often, generalisations are regarded as the ‘truth’ when, in reality, it is always the nuances and small details which are the real essence.

    Your point of Coles’ hypocricy is the hammer on the nail; if they don’t agree with intensive pork production, why aren’t they sourcing free-range and ethical alternatives for their customers? Unless they actually do this, I don’t see the point of them collaborating with Animals Australia in this campaign.

    Coles raison d’etre is to make money through the resale of as-cheap-as-possible products (local and imported) and attempting to garner some emotional credibility at the same time.

    Reality is, this isn’t achievable.

    Thank you and Stuart for all you are doing in the raising of happy pigs, squealing with joi de vivre all their life until their one ‘bad’ day.

    Keep up the wonderful thinking, doing and writing – you inspire many more of us to do the same 🙂

  15. Farmers aren’t the promotors of factory-farming agriculture, consumers are. And Coles is, i this case, the agent supreme for the consumer.
    If farmers could name the price for their produce, or, at least have a leg-up in negotiations, consumers would be more willing to pay for quality – and if by quality consumers want ‘conscience’ food, then, so be it.
    The consumers, especially the majority in urbanised Australia, are the ones to blame and they are supported b y all political parties, including the Greens, in their wanting food, plenty of it, when they want it and how they want it.
    Farmers are being exploited all ways.

  16. Tammi, I am so very late to comment on your piece you mightn’t actually read it 🙂 but I just wanted to applaud and commend you for your wonderful efforts in the area of the humane animal husbandry. I read your article in yesterday’s Australian, ‘Pigs in Mud’ – it was music to my ears! I was so heartened to learn about your pig farm I wanted to thank and congratulate you on this (as well as your interesting and eloquent blog). My family made the decision to only eat “ethically farmed” animals a few years ago, when we began keeping chickens in our back garden, regularly taking a trip to a battery farm to ‘rescue’ the poor scrawny girls from their short lives of servitude and misery. You are right about Coles – utter hypocrites, motivated purely by profit and completely lacking any affinity towards animals except insomuch as it will facilitate more sales for them on the back of a humanitarian campaign.

  17. Coles are owned by Wesfarmers.
    Coles dropped the proposed bag sales because the income of Wesfarmers was about to plummet catastrophically to near zero.

    The farming community nationwide was within a couple of days of switching all purchases of farm merchandise to anybody-but-Wesfarmers.

    Wesfarmers/Coles detected this (they pay some attention to facebook/twitter).

    Farmers in Australia have been kicked and persecuted for ages, this was one chance to kick back.

    When it comes to agitating farmers, Coles couldn’t have picked anyone better than Animals Australia to trigger a response.

    Animal advocacy groups don’t have a happy record of probity in the bush. That is their own fault, being as the leading urgers are usually urbanised urgers, usually ingenuous screeching females.

    Animals Australia are, with quite some justification, held responsible for the Live Cattle Export ban, Farmers of every stripe would go out of their way to kick back at them.

    Coles misread the situation badly.
    Animals Australia haven’t realised they went too far by bringing on the live cattle export ban.

    It would have been bloody for Wesfarmers.
    It would have been brutally satisfying for the rural community.

  18. The biggest threat to farmers in Australia is the Coles/Woolworths duopoly. Not an animal welfare advocacy group.

  19. Indeed Chris, Colesworths are nobody’s friend, that however is immaterial to the rural sector having, and taking, an opportunity to give just a touch of return fire to an outfit as evil as Animals Australia.

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