Nick Cooney spoke with Jacy Reese, a Research Associate at ACE, on September 2, 2015.
US and Canada Investigations
Mercy For Animals (MFA) has released six investigations so far this year, focusing primarily on poultry farms, and plans to release four more by the end of the year. This number is purposefully lower than last year because they were concerned too many investigations could reduce the amount of attention each new one gets in the media. The most recent investigation released on a McDonald’s supplier had over 1,000 media hits on the day it was released, including the Wall Street Journal, CNN, USA Today, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, and more. More exact numbers on media success including projected value will be available soon from the media database firm MFA works with. These investigations bring in useful footage, build MFA’s membership base and donations, and they spark corporate policy changes.
They now have a full-time investigator in India, gathering footage for them. The first release in India is going to be different than the ones in North America. They also have contracted an investigation firm in China to work in each of the main animal agriculture industries, such as eggs, poultry, pork. In Mexico, MFA has two investigators ready to start working who are Mexican citizens. MFA is finishing legal due diligence to be sure they conduct their investigations within the bounds of state and federal laws.
These investigations should be cheaper than North American investigations, but it’s unclear what the exact costs will be. In part, this is because the investigations operate differently. It is more difficult to conduct investigations in these locations as an employee of an farm in some countries, like they do in North America, because, for example, many workers in India do not wear shirts, which makes camera equipment difficult to conceal. In Mexico, the investigators were trained in the United States, so there are recruitment and training costs comparable to those of US and Canada investigations.
These investigations are especially exciting because there haven’t been many investigations in these countries. This means they are more likely to grab substantial media attention, spark public outrage, and prompt corporate and policy changes.
MFA has a one person legal department that handles the legal work surrounding their investigations. Their tasks include making sure that investigators work within the bounds of the law and that animal cruelty uncovered by these investigations is shown to authorities when applicable. Both of these will also apply to MFA’s international investigations. In India, for example, there are actually fairly strict laws against animal cruelty, but they are often not enforced. This could mean that MFA investigations are more likely to lead to criminal prosecution in India.
MFA is filling two new attorney positions to carry out proactive litigation, such as filing suits with federal regulatory bodies for animal welfare improvements.
This will soon be a two person department with the second staff member joining to focus on promoting vegan products. Most corporate advocacy is done in the wake of MFA investigations. The biggest success, which involved efforts from other animal advocacy organizations, was a campaign against the especially cruel practices in Walmart’s supply chain. Walmart made the commitment to end some of those practices, such as gestation crates and dehorning. This will affect many animals. For example, 25% of national pork production comes from farms that supply Walmart. MFA is confident this commitment will produce real change for animals because animal advocacy organizations hold Walmart accountable, including with the possibility of further investigations.
MFA has also been successful campaigning for welfare improvements in dairy companies following undercover investigations, including Saputo, Leprino Foods, and Great Lake Cheese. These companies have committed to ending especially cruel practices like tail docking and dehorning. MFA also played a role in the recent campaigns against the use of battery cages by major food service companies including Sodexo and Aramark, although these campaigns were primarily driven by The Humane League.
Education and Communications
Online ads are still a major component of MFA’s work, with roughly $500k spent on the program annually. A rough breakdown of this spending is as follows: 60% in Latin America, 20% in English speaking countries, and 20% in India/China. India, China, and Latin America have shown great responsiveness. For example, it costs roughly $8 per pledge to go vegetarian in English speaking countries, but only $1.10 per pledge in Latin America. This is both because respondents are more likely to engage with the ads and because the ads themselves are cheaper.
275,000 people have pledged to go vegetarian. This figure might hit 500,000 by the end of the year. There’s also evidence to suggest that Facebook ads, where MFA does most of their advertising, have most of their effect on people who just see the ads without even engaging with them, at least in the commercial sector.
When people do engage with the ads, such as by taking the pledge, they are sent an email series with guidance on reducing their consumption of animal products. They also have the ability to reach out to MFA for a personal response to their questions or difficulties in trying to go vegetarian. MFA has been receiving roughly 100 emails per day from people asking questions or just thanking MFA.
Other online content
In addition to online ads, MFA has had great success with creating and sharing viral veg advocacy videos. This generated 80 million views this year, with a projected 120 million total by the end of the year. Although they don’t have surveys or other systematic measures of the impact on each viewer, the anecdotal feedback is encouraging and the total numbers reached are huge. For the first 8 months of 2015, they also have about 3 million pageviews on their veg eating resources (or about 9 million including blog posts, which sometimes include veg eating resources), including pages in English, Spanish, Hindi, and Chinese, and they have roughly 1.2 billion Facebook impressions, the vast majority of which are with non-followers. MFA estimates about 40% of their followers are non-vegetarian and at least 80% of non-followers reached are non-vegetarian.
They continue to work on grassroots outreach, but it makes up a small part of their work. One staffer works on this along with interns. There are also costs for the literature they distribute. For example, MFA teamed up with Vegan Outreach (VO) to leaflet in Mexico. MFA paid for the leaflets and VO covered distribution. MFA distributed 80,000 printed starter guides this past year. They also conducted some pay-per-view events and distributed MFA pro-veg booklets. They expect to distribute about 1.4 million booklets by the end of the year. Overall, this program costs roughly $100-130k.
Writing media articles and books
MFA writes animal advocacy opinion pieces and other media articles. MFA is able to control the message in these cases, instead of relying on outside journalists. This only takes up part of one staffer’s time, but has resulted in roughly 20 articles (mostly op-eds) in major media outlets, including NY Post, LA Times, Denver Post, and USA Today. Additionally, MFA is starting a new project to write books related to their work and helping farmed animals. Originally, they planned on publishing the books themselves, but have since decided against that. They are working with one of the top literary agents in the country. Their first book will be authored by Nathan Runkle and details his work on MFA, especially the success of undercover investigations. It has already been sold to Penguin Books and earned revenue for MFA. The book is expected to come out in 2017, and there are three more books that will be pitched, and almost definitely sold, to major publishers by year’s end. Two of these are on veg related diet/fitness and the other is on reducing meat consumption.
MFA’s fellowship program recruits leaders from top universities, empowering them to advocate for animals at their university and beyond, either working directly for an animal advocacy organization or in an outside position. There were 14 MFA fellows in Spring 2015 and even more are expected this fall. Their accomplishments in the spring include roughly 2,500 meatless Monday pledges, part of which was 10% of Yale’s undergraduate student body, thousands of leaflets and starter guides distributed on these campuses, public lectures, and video screenings.
MFA continues to conduct research into making their work more effective, such as testing different Facebook ads or different videos. They have hired a full time staffer, Krystal Caldwell, to work on this. They also share their materials, such as designs, with other animal advocacy groups.
The Good Food Institute
MFA is creating a foundation to support the development and success of cultured meat and other plant-based alternatives to animal products. This foundation will be a legally separate entity funded by MFA. Bruce Friedrich will be Executive Director of the foundation and Brian Kateman will be an additional staffer. They are also making a third hire shortly. This project will work to improve branding of these alternatives through research and testing and build the pipeline of scientists and funders for this field. There will also be a legally distinct trust to invest in companies that promote vegan eating.
Cooney is especially excited about their current international expansion, setting up the new foundation, the huge reach of viral videos, and the huge increase in media exposure for MFA’s investigations in 2015. MFA made a decision to reduce the proportion of their resources spent on grassroots outreach and has been happy with that change. They also hired someone to pitch pro-veg articles in the media, but retired that program because the op-ed strategy described above seemed more promising. They are also happy with their decision to reduce the number of investigations for this year, since it would allow them to be more selective about which investigations to do and help them get more media attention. In 2014, MFA earned $75 million in media attention, but they earned $150 million in just the first eight months of 2015.
ACE’s recommendation has been a significant boost to MFA’s fundraising and brand. They recently implemented a system to better track money moved by ACE to their organization, which should better measure ACE’s impact.