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Member-Flush ASPCA Poised to Monitor Industrial Farming

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It's not your imagination.

That is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - for years the voice of spaying and neutering domestic pets - stepping up in the fight over chicken processing line speeds and other industrial agriculture issues.

And with a bigger staff, a hefty financial investment and more than 2 million members, the ASPCA could become a force with which to be reckoned. In the last two years, the ASPCA has worked to expand the scope of its watchdog arm, most recently evidenced in its push against a USDA modernized poultry inspection rule.

Broiler chicken has been the primary focus since 2012, but the group is poised to advocate in other agricultural issues as well, ASPCA President and CEO Matt Bershadker told POLITICO Pro Monday.

"I think the ASPCA has a unique voice in this effort," Berkshadker said. "Our strategy is to meet people where they are on these issues. We are an organization that takes a very balanced approach."

That will likely be a boon for the group, according to the results of a Purdue University study published in the Journal of Animal Sciences at the end of July.

After conducting an online survey of 798 U.S. households, three Purdue University professors found that pet owners are increasingly taking an interest in animal welfare on industrial farms, and that they're looking beyond traditional animal welfare organizations for their information.

"In the U.S. livestock and poultry industries, it is not uncommon for public concerns about animal welfare to be dismissed as arising solely from animal protectionists and extremists who oppose animal use," the study states. "However, when concern emanates from consumers of animal products, the respective industries are forced to take note."

The researchers found just such an example when they studied consumer behavior in relation to pork consumption.

Swine gestation was a topic in the news following the release of undercover footage on a hog farm, which coincided roughly with the time of the study, so the researchers included related questions in the survey, said Candace Croney, head of the Purdue Center for Animal Welfare Science and one of the authors of the study.

As many as 14 percent of the survey respondents reported cutting their pork consumption in half after the release of the undercover footage depicting the conditions in sow housing and other aspects of the pork production process, issues brought to media attention by the Humane Society of the United States.

That consumers would alter their lifestyles as a response to industry conditions was significant, Croney said.

A heightened awareness of animals involved in industrial farming is akin to the emergence of farmers markets across the country and the growing interest in knowing where a person's food comes from, she said. The USDA's National Farmers Market Directory now lists a 76 percent increase in the number of markets since 2008. That, and concern for industrially farmed animals, is a direct reflection of a growing skepticism of large-scale food production, said Croney.

Being an informer and an advocate is the sweet spot ASPCA hopes to hit.

"I think because we're looked to as animal experts, a lot of our supporters were coming to us for advice and information on farm animals," said Daisy Freund, senior manager at the ASPCA. "Farm animal welfare is not a fringe issue anymore. It's really common sense and it's a deeply held value. Solutions start on the farm."

Freund and Bershadker said chicken production has been a primary focus for the group, but they also plan to give time and energy to swine gestation, felony animal cruelty provisions and more clear food labeling.

"We understand that this can be a tricky space, and we want to maintain that calm rationale and informed voice, but still advocate for reform," Bershadker said, adding that working with industry on slow, incremental reform is the goal.

"At every step of the way we make sure that we verify our conclusions with those folks," he said. "This is what our members want. This is what our members expect of us."

And with its reach extended deep into local communities across the country, the ASPCA may become one of the primary means by which pet owners across American are made aware of industrial farming welfare concerns.

The ASPCA's primary challenge will be maintaining its tone, Croney said. Organizations such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for instance, are often criticized for sounding too radical, which ultimately works to their disadvantage when communicating with members of the general public, Croney said.

If they can maintain that, there will be lots of room for growth, she estimated. And with that growth, more reason for companies to monitor the organization's messaging.

"At the end of the day, you have to pay attention to the fact that if you're running a business and your customers are increasingly asking about the conditions in which the animals are raised   it becomes increasingly important to address those concerns," Croney said.