As Big Ag’s grade-A meat promoter, Charlie Arnot cooks up opposition to industry reform

Charlie Arnot’s dining options are limited today.

He keeps an office in a nondescript business complex with few other tenants near Kansas City International Airport, so he can get in and out of town quickly.

The restaurants around here are the same as everywhere else in the country — an Arby’s, a Taco Bell, a KFC, a Dairy Queen. People who want a nicer garnish and a waiter can go to the Ruby Tuesday or the Waffle House.

Arnot picks the Ruby Tuesday.

It’s a bracingly cold Thursday afternoon. As he walks from the car to the restaurant, he worries about the weather. He has tickets for opening day at Kauffman Stadium and doesn’t want to see the game postponed.

Inside the restaurant, Arnot sits at a table but doesn’t bother to open the menu. It lists 24 types of burgers. USDA beef, range-fed bison, chicken, ground turkey — any of them with cheese, bacon, a slice of fresh avocado, or a steak sauce made with Samuel Adams Boston Lager — and as much of the pink grilled out of the flesh as a customer requests. There are seven types of steaks, four combinations of barbecued ribs and meat and sauce.

Americans love meat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average U.S. citizen consumed 90.6 pounds of beef, 62.3 pounds of pork, 99.2 pounds of chicken and 18 pounds of turkey in 2008. It’s a lucrative business in Kansas and Missouri — both place in the country’s top 10 states for meat production. According to the USDA, the two states produced a combined 10,850,000 head of cattle and calves in 2007.

And meat loves Charlie Arnot.

The founder of CMA Consulting, he does public-relations and “issues management” work for clients such as the National Pork Producers Council. He’s also the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity, a nonprofit whose mission is to “build consumer trust and confidence in the contemporary U.S. food system”; its backers include the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

At 47, gray hair is seeping into his temples. He wears a madras shirt and khakis.

Having spent close to 15 years in agribusiness and now writing a regular column for the industry newspaper Feedstuffs, Arnot has an intimate knowledge of how cattle, hogs and chickens live and die. He knows about the penning, the inoculations, the drugs put in their feed, and the methods of their slaughter.

He orders the salad bar.

Before he went into business for himself, Arnot spent 10 years as vice president of communications and public affairs for Premium Standard Farms, a pork producer with hog farms across Texas and Missouri. The company is the second-largest hog producer in the country, developing millions of pigs every year. The company owns every level of production — the semen, the science behind the process of insemination, the pens in which the animals are raised, the slaughterhouses, the Styrofoam trays that carry the meat to market.

At the time, rural communities were turning against companies such as Premium Standard. Though they had once welcomed massive corporate hog farms as economic engines, rural residents saw their property values drop when the operations moved in. Hundreds of thousands of hogs penned in one area created problems with waste disposal. In 1999, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency and a coalition of 60 of the company’s neighbors in northwestern Missouri filed suit against Premium Standard for repeated violations of federal environmental-protection laws, including waste-disposal methods that had tainted the region’s water, and for health problems caused by the stench of the sewage.

Arnot’s official message on behalf of Premium Standard: that the technical classification of a spill didn’t apply to what was happening, that the company was an excellent neighbor, and that it was actually on the cutting edge of changing the agriculture business to something more environmentally sound and ethical.

In 2007, Smithfield Foods bought Premium Standard; the litigation is ongoing.

By the time he was laid-off in 2004, Arnot had made so many industry contacts and had learned enough about media practices that he went into business for himself, forming CMA Consultants.

He stayed in Kansas City, not because it was one of the country’s old cowtowns but because his two children were in middle school and he didn’t want to uproot them.

And soon enough, Arnot had work to do.

When the book Chew on This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food was scheduled to be released in 2006, the meat industry had reason to be worried. One of its authors, Eric Schlosser, had already grossed out thousands of Big Mac lovers with Fast Food Nation, his detailed exposé of the drive-through business. A movie version of that best-seller was in the works; people who had read it knew that there was a good chance their burgers came with a bit of feces along with the lettuce, tomato and special sauce. Chew on This was to be a kid’s version, to educate and disgust a whole new generation of consumers before they were old enough to get hooked on Happy Meals.

Co-opting Schlosser’s well-recognized title, Arnot’s consulting agency launched a Web site called Best Food Nation in May 2006. The site’s members included the American Meat Institute, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, the National Chicken Council, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, the National Pork Producers Council, the Snack Food Association and the United States Potato Board.

“Simply put, America is the Best Food Nation,” the Web site argues. “From safe, abundant and affordable food choices to jobs and economic growth for our communities, the people working in the U.S. food system provide innumerable benefits not only to Americans, but consumers across the globe. Unfortunately, critics of our food system want consumers to think otherwise and are promoting their agendas using information that is inaccurate, misleading and incomplete.”

The site offers a list of “myths,” followed by industry rebuttals. Among the slanders: Fast food is a major factor in the increase of obesity in the United States; packing plants intentionally hire illegal immigrants; fast food offers dead-end jobs; farmers treat their livestock inhumanely; and ground beef is contaminated with cattle feces.

Best Food Nation’s members don’t want the American omnivore to take all of this lying down. On its “Take Action” page, the site encourages readers to send Best Food Nation links to friends, family, government officials and the media. It also recommends that the site’s visitors keep a watchful eye on local newspapers for stories maligning the U.S. food industry, so that the organization can send letters to the editor. It has suggestions for contacting school-board members to ensure balanced information about American food and agriculture in school curriculums.

Though the site mostly refers to unnamed enemies of good food who need to be stopped, Schlosser is a main target. “Mr. Schlosser takes on socioeconomic issues totally inappropriate for children, and he does so in a deliberately distorted fashion,” writes Elizabeth M. Whelan, founder and president of the American Council on Science and Health, a nonprofit whose donors have included the American Meat Institute, Burger King and Oscar Mayer Foods. “Eric Schlosser hates fast foods. But a careful read of his books on the subject confirms he really hates big, successful corporations, their efficiency, and, of course, their associated profits. He despises the fact kids, and adults — love burgers, fries and shakes — since he thinks McDonald’s should serve only fruits, vegetables and water.”

The site, which is still live though doesn’t appear to be updated, has brought Arnot to the attention of advocates pushing for greater regulation of food production.

Meat producers faced more public-relations problems in 2002, when an initiative to regulate how animals were penned and raised ended up on the ballot in Florida. After that measure passed, the battle moved to other states — particularly Arizona, where the citizen-petition process was relatively simple, and public sentiment was in favor of regulation after the Humane Society released undercover video of pig-farm conditions.

Proposition 204 would have required pregnant pigs and calves intended for veal to be raised with enough room to lie down, turn around and stretch their limbs.

Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society of the United States, says Arnot was hired as a consultant by the “No on 204” campaign. “It was all the big agribusiness companies putting money into the group called the Campaign for Arizona Farmers and Ranchers. They ended up spending $1.5 million, and just about every penny went to smearing our campaign.”

Shapiro says the Campaign for Arizona Farmers and Ranchers repeatedly put out information saying that Proposition 204 was a PETA initiative, the theory being that the animal-rights group’s radical image would turn voters against 204.

“There were signs all over — ‘PETA Supports Prop 204.'” But, he says, “There’s a huge difference between our two groups.” PETA had not been involved in the campaign planning nor had it contributed financially.

On November 2, 2006, The Arizona Republic ran a story calling the opposition’s mantra “misleading if not downright false.” The story also observed that, while the opposition ads took pains to make it seem as if small family farms would be financially ruined by the measure, only one farm in the state would likely be affected: an industrial hog farm, one of the country’s biggest, that sold a quarter of a million pigs a year.

And the opposition campaign called Prop 204 supporters far worse names than “PETA members.” An October 10 press release accused the reformers of making threats against the “No on 204” campaign’s leaders, staff and families, and alleged that “No on 204” campaign workers had reported acts of “domestic terrorism” to the FBI for investigation.

“It was just the lowest of the low,” Shapiro says, “the most casual relationship with the truth I’ve ever seen in a campaign.”

It didn’t work. Proposition 204 passed with more than 60 percent of the vote. It takes effect December 12, 2012.

Despite Shapiro’s impression of Arnot as a force behind the campaign, Arnot says his involvement was tacit at most.

“I worked with the National Pork Producers on a lot of different issues. I work with a lot of different industries on a lot of different issues,” he says. “I did not write anything for that campaign. I did attend a meeting of the National Pork Producers that discussed the ballot initiative, and I did attend meetings with folks in Arizona about issues related to the ballot initiative. I was paid for my time by the National Pork Producers, but I’m paid by them for a lot of different work.”

The biggest fight of Arnot’s career is under way now.

In March, U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, introduced a bill to curb the use of antibiotics in livestock. Called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, the legislation is designed to phase out the use of antibiotics on healthy animals raised for food.

Slaughter’s legislation is the first in what’s expected to be a series of regulatory efforts based on the findings of researchers at the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. In April 2008, the group released the results of a 20-month study of every facet of the agribusiness industry. Among other things, they studied the impact of large farming operations on small family operations in rural economies, the health risks for workers who process animals, the environmental impacts, and the results of administering drugs to livestock.

The report echoes many of the issues raised in the lawsuit against Premium Standard Farms. Researchers concluded that while the number of swine produced in the United States has held steady since the 1950s, production has shifted from a system of family farmers to a few huge producers — meaning that the same number of animals are now being raised in enormous pens, packed tightly against one another. This produces massive amounts of waste, polluting streams, rivers, lakes, groundwater, soil and air, even miles from the farm site.

“The animals live in filthy, overcrowded conditions and are given daily doses of antibiotics just long enough to suppress diseases and get them through the food system,” says Robert Martin, the executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. The commission’s researchers, citing a figure from the Union of Concerned Scientists, said 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States every year are given to farm animals. Such widespread use has created a public-health problem, Martin says, because new strains of bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella have grown resistant to antibiotics.

“The last E. coli outbreak was [in 2006] with tainted spinach. Then there was the one with Mexican peppers, and there’s an ongoing issue with salmonella-contaminated peanuts. People are going to get sick.”

There are other human costs, too. Respiratory sickness is common among hog-farm workers. And in the areas surrounding industrial farms, researchers found lower rates of family income, higher rates of poverty, lower retail sales, lower quality of housing, and lower wages for farmworkers than in comparable areas when family farms were dominating agriculture.

The commission ran into problems in February 2008, when the four academic experts who had worked on its farm-waste panel put out a statement saying they were “disappointed” in the research procedures. The statement was distributed to the press and made its way into a Washington Post story about internal fighting over the commission’s credibility.

One of the researchers who had signed the statement was Leonard Bull, a professor of animal science and the associate director of the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center at North Carolina State University. He says the professors were unhappy with the way the commission handled the draft of their findings.

“Our issue was that, under the terms of agreement, the paper would be subjected to peer review” — the rigorous process in which academic work is judged by other academics — “and that the final accepted copy would be published somewhere,” Bull says.

“So we submitted this paper a year ago, and it was sent out for review, but before the reviews came back and comments from our peers were given, the Pew people had already set up a congressional briefing session on the topic.”

Bull says the issues he had were addressed — the paper was eventually peer-reviewed — and that he stands by the final report used in the Pew Commission’s findings.

Arnot, however, argues that the commission’s work was ethically compromised. For proof, he cites the four researchers’ statement.

Which he wrote.

Bull says Arnot was the person who called to tell him about the congressional briefing that kicked off the controversy and was responsible for the letter that Bull and his fellow scientists signed. “His folks were the people who put it together,” Bull says.

At the time the statement was released, Arnot was providing communications support for the Animal Agricultural Alliance, a group that was coordinating agribusiness’s response to the Pew work. (He was the alliance’s chair until 2004 and spoke at the organization’s 2006 conference on his methods for pre-empting potential industry crises.)

“Arnot’s the center of the opposition,” says Martin.

Martin makes CMA Consulting’s involvement sound almost sinister. “Arnot convinced them to violate their ethics,” he says of the four scientists. “I had long talks with all of their deans and got some apologies.”

Bull has since left North Carolina State University. He now does consulting work related to wastewater treatment, carbon reduction and nitrous oxide reduction, and chairs the National Institute for Animal Agriculture — a nonprofit whose members include the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Feed Industry Association, the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers Council.

Arnot says he has not been retained for any consulting related to the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.

Martin doesn’t expect much movement on the bill, given more pressing issues in Congress right now. He’s still guarded, though. “If you ask around and you hear what’s being spread by the opposition, it’s all Charlie’s playbook,” he says.

“He’s an interesting character,” Martin adds. “On the one hand, he’s coordinating the attacks on the findings. But on the other hand, when he’d be out with the commissioners, he’d say things like, ‘You guys are right on the money. This is just where the industry needs to go!'”

Among those commissioners, who were tasked with overseeing the project and issuing a final report, was John Carlin, the former governor of Kansas, now a professor of political science at Kansas State University.

“The status quo has a lot of desire to stay where they are, and that’s normal, that’s understandable,” Carlin says of pork and cattle producers. “They’ve got huge investments, and in any area of life where you have that, there’ll be reluctance to change. They got caught up with all the antibiotics findings,” Carlin explains. “But they were doing their job, monitoring what we were doing and trying to influence the results.”

A graduate of the University of Nebraska with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Arnot started out as a radio journalist in Nebraska and sometime newspaper reporter.

“I enjoyed it. I also know what it feels like to be jealous of the money a public-school teacher makes,” he says. “It was fun. It was the most fun job I ever had.”

After leaving journalism, Arnot took small jobs in film production. He did sound production on The War Room (Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s 1994 documentary about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign) and on Roger & Me, Michael Moore’s first documentary, in 1989.

“He’s just gotten so whiny and self-righteous,” Arnot says of Moore, adding that he can’t watch his former boss’s films anymore. “It’s just the same thing over and over.”

When it comes to his own propaganda strategies, Arnot favors long-winded answers that reveal little.

The Pitch: So let’s say that Pew got its way, and producers cut out antibiotics. Wouldn’t that mean that, because fewer animals can be brought through the system, consumers would end up paying much higher prices for meat?

Arnot: “I think that’s beside the point. There’s critical issues here, and we’ve missed an enormous opportunity for meaningful public discourse about these issues. So we divert back to the old strategies of demonizing, vilifying, polarizing and looking for public-policy solutions as the best way to address issues. I think long-term, I think about the balance of ethics, science and economics, and if you take any of those three out, the balance collapses. So if you’ve raised ethical concerns but don’t have any scientific data and aren’t willing to consider economic impact, that’s not right. If you only rely on science and on scientific justification for ethical justification, that’s not legitimate, either. And if you put profits ahead of principles and aren’t willing to engage in an ethical discussion, no one’s going to support that. But, at the end of the day, if you’re not sustainable, you don’t have scientific verification, you can’t support your claim, and aren’t committed to performing ethically, then you can’t maintain support. We keep falling back into the same tired pattern of looking for victims and facilitators as a way to avoid meaningful discussion about very complex issues.”

This might come across as thoughtful, but in reality, Arnot is using a technique he has developed for dealing with potentially difficult situations.

In an October 2, 2006, article for Feedstuffs on the food industry’s loss of public trust and credibility, Arnot included tips for responding to questions:

“If receivers oppose your position, present arguments on both sides of the issue.”

“If receivers already agree with your position, your message will have greater impact if you present only arguments consistent with their view.”

“If receivers are well educated, include both sides of the argument.”

“If you use messages containing both sides of the issue, do not leave out relevant arguments on the opposing side. The omission will create suspicion of your presentation.”

“If receivers are likely to later be exposed to persuasive messages countering your position, use two-sided messages to inoculate the audience.”

Arnot says his business is based on convincing his clients to act more ethically, not less. Before he starts working with new clients, he has them watch a video of the CMA Consulting philosophy, shot on a mounted camera in his Kansas City boardroom.

In it, Arnot argues that it’s in a company’s best interest to act ethically and keep the public trust. Those ethics, he says, include acting transparently and in the public interest. And part of the public interest is the obligation to produce enough food.

“Once you’ve lost the social contract, that’s when regulation starts,” he says on the video. “Regulation is always going to be more expensive than doing the right thing.”

At Ruby Tuesday, Arnot scrapes the white plate with his fork, smearing a bit of white dressing over the iceberg lettuce.

“Ag has some problems, but they’ve improved,” he says. “They work to get better all the time. It’s not perfect in all areas yet, but it has greatly improved over the years.”

He admits there are some “bad actors” in agribusiness, as in any business. But he won’t name names. “It’s someone who’s abusing the animal, not treating the animal appropriately, whomever that happens to be,” he says.

The waiter comes and leaves the check, and he gets ready to leave.

“At the end of the day, there are challenges to the food system, sure,” Arnot says. “But the men and women I know work very hard to produce safe, affordable food every day.”

He shrugs off his critics.

“Things can get very personal, unnecessarily, and the problem I have is with the extreme people. It can just be very nasty, and if you have to be that nasty, it makes you question the motives and thought behind their positions. It takes us away from having a debate about the real issues in the industry today. Very few people have the courage to have that debate.”

Never mind that his opponents are the ones who say he’s the one who’s extreme and nasty. At the moment, Arnot faces a more important question: Why didn’t he order a burger for lunch?

“I get enough meat with my job,” he says.

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