dr. michael greger, hsus researcher
dr. michael greger, director of public health and animal agriculture, hsus
c- So I have that you are the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture here at the Humane Society and so I was wondering if you could explain just a little bit about that title and what that means.
m- So I um do writing, research and speaking about the public health implications of industrial animal agriculture so whether that is feeding factory farm animals to fatten them faster or whether it's the emergence of infectious diseases like mad cow disease, bird flu, swine flu or whether it's the impact on communities of these so-called factory farms in terms of increased infant mortality, asthma rates among school children, etc. So there are human health implications on how we raise animals. How we raise animals have global public health implications.
c- And, so mainly it's just research on these topics and then sometimes lectures,
c- usually lectures.
m- and speaking that's pretty much it.
c- And so prior to your time here at the Humane Society you were doing these lectures?
m- I was speaking pretty much full-time. I go around the country giving talks about very similar things actually and that's what I think peaked uh the, the organizations attention that they might be interested in having me on board-here I am.
c- So, it was really kind of like a shoe-in almost. Like it just
m- Well yeah there wasn't anyone doing this kind of work and I think it's just well we have people here who have degrees in a in a you know like a system of agriculture, world hunger issues, environmental issues. Uh and so, very similarly what well it's very difficult to just pull out the animal welfare component to these uh factory farms and they have so many setbacks in terms of worker safety and uh
c- And so are you primarily the only person that does lectures here?
m- Oh well I'm the only, I'm the token MD so I am the only human Medical Doctor here at the US Agriculture employees. Well, we have lots of people that lecture. Um, I'm trying to think if I lecture more than others, uh I probably do. Do I lecture more than everybody? I don't know. I'm not sure who else is, maybe people who are out doing more lectures um, now I'm down to just a few a month.
c- And so there is the Humane Society of the United States obviously, and then um is there a Humane Society for every state? Or...
m- Well there's uh we're broken up into the Humane Society of the United States and then also Humane Society international. So I actually hold kind of dual titles within both organizations so we have offices on most on most continents and to spread our work internationally now that we're such a globalized world. We are tempting to have regional directors in every state of the country we have yet to fill all of the space but I think we have most of the important ones done already and we continue to look for other people to work on you know state legislation, state line issues, local issues.
c- And so as a Medical Doctor, I guess what made you want to focus your research on animal agriculture?
m- Well it was uh I did my post-graduate research at an AIDS hospital a public health hospital up in Boston and I just remember this was before protease inhibitors and some of our better treatments now they just felt so impotent and uh we just couldn't do anything for these people at all. Uh and you know and I just just was thinking to myself you know when I was growing up there was no such thing as AIDS. Like, you know, where did this disease come from in the first place? Is there anything we can do to prevent the emergence of such diseases uh before they spin out of control to go and kill millions of people like AIDS has done. And that's what really started me in to you know HIV AIDS came from the Butchered meat trade in Africa. So like butchered a chimpanzee a few decades ago and now twenty-five million people are dead. You say wait a second there are lots of good reasons not to be butchering chimpanzees. But, you know, if people realize that it's not just bad for the chimpanzee and bad for the ecological reasons for purely selfish reasons I mean this is this not not good. I mean this is what got me started and then of course SARS hit, so bird flu in 97, and SARS 2003, (2002 2003), and so I've been busy. Mad cow 1996.
c- So, it was essentially working in that clinic and being curious I guess is what...
m- Well yeah I wanted to get to the root cause-right-so it's it's much easier to make an ounce of prevention in hopes of finding a cure, so I'm still kind of doing medicine just kind of on a broader scale.
c- So, after you went to school for medicine, is that when you went to Cornell?
m- So, I went to Cornell first.
m- for Agriculture, culture, agriculture-to get a degree, and then I went to medical school. Then went to work in the hospital. Then went on the road and then ended up here in DC working for the Humane Society.
c- Hm. So it was like these little series of events that sort of...
m- But, I think I'm done. I think I found my place in the world. Uh, and God-willing to uh an organization that continues to value my work and I uh expect to be here forever hopefully.
c- And, so these lectures that you do you primarily do them internationally sometimes and then on a, a nationwide scale and so what is one of the main ways that the Humane Society does outreach in order to just get out to the main public?
m- Oh, in general? Well we just did a series of national television ads that adopt, pet adopt program to get people to to try and decrease euthanasia rates in our, our pet shelters. Uh and so there we're getting out to the public just by just the way Pepsi gets out to the public I mean it's big and nationally televised TV spots. But, uh you know we do other kind of low-key things all of the standard kind of stuff you know a table at events, national conferences, regional conferences, we go around and do trainings. You know we just have a kind of good public presence on the web and uh you know just all the kind of standard ways to get the word out
c- And so, do you ever find it difficult whenever you are presenting some of your research at one of these conferences just because of the nature of these topics—you're talking about factory farming, you're talking about the meat industry which is just you know just a large industry and has a lot of power do you ever find that maybe people are not as willing to listen to you?
m- Well, it depends on the audience certainly. Um definitely I go around and speak at you know poultry centers programs, agriculture schools in a Georgia, and they're are a very hostile audience. But, you know I find those a lot more a ful-filling. No one is talking to them, it's easy to speak to the choir, um but uh so it depends so its public health audiences are typically very open to um uh um you know general public is tends to be open to the message. Uh although of course there is a selection bias that shows up to these kind of events. But, uh you know in public library settings in general you know people they look around and they see all these new diseases see the uh what's happening to the health of our kids and uh they they want to know what's behind it all.
c- So when you're speaking so to speak not too the choir when you're at these agencies and you are giving your lectures do you feel as though you are making an impact these people are really going to take some of the things you have to say and change some of the things they have as policy?
m- Well that is certainly the hope. Um, my uh I get limited feedback you know people coming up to you and saying 'Oh, I saw you speak whenever I've made these following changes' So you know I did a little speaking and helped the California initiative by a landslide which I can't take any credit but to be a part of that you get a sense that you're contributing to something bigger. So, uh you know. When I go around and give you know a talk you know testify before Congress or state legislature do kind of national media interviews you know it's all about getting the word out. And I think with an issue like this it's really easy and it's just that people knew about it then it would stop. People really, I mean that is what we showed in California. Even if the industry spends 10 million dollars trying to mislead everybody, show someone a battery cage-people don't want to have anything to do with it. And so how easy is our job when all we have to do is show a picture um whereas with some other issues it may be a more differently it may have to use philosophical arguments may have to try and convince people, but this is like a no brainer so really it's just about dispelling ignorance whatever you call it. Picturesque pastures and rolling hills in their mind of Ronald McDonald's farm. And you say, it ain't true anymore.
c- And so with these things you mentioned talking before Congress. Can you talk a little bit about this.
m- Yeah. No my uh my uh my biggest thing was uh meat recall-Hallmark Westland Plant meat recall largest in history 140 million pounds and uh because it was a human health issue it concerns about well you know when it comes to Mad Cow disease I was, I had spoke—I think I was even lined up I think our a Director of External Affairs, Mike Markarian was slated but I think he had to be out of the country or something. So I got the opportunity and it was great so I got to be a grilled you know by the Texas representative. Um that was a lot of fun and uh you know I got to a little debating and I enjoyed that so that was my big thing beyond that mostly is a lot of comments um I did some state live bird markets trying to shut down live bird markets up in New York um but uh.
c- So, you don't really try to go there to try and pass legislation it's more to talk about it?
m- Oh, so hearings right. Yeah more legislative stuff would be our kind of government affairs folks I just kind of offer testimony as kind of expert testimony. So this I don't know what the implications are going to be so, and you know it usually supports some kind of policy thing we have this sort of talk.
c- Yeah, I recently watched the movie Food, Inc. and they talk a lot about things that have happened in history and they talk about different small time farmers who maybe have to shut down if they are not meeting a bigger meat business standard. And just the differences in how much it costs to run a farm and how much you actually make from that and um it's very interesting. And they also talked about meat recalls but I think it was in schools. And I don't know if you know anything about that. But I guess it had affected the meat that was supplied to schools.
m- That was the Hallmark Westland Plant and that was 140 million they were the number two supplier of the federal school program so it affected children all across the country.
c- And, when was that exactly?
m- That was the 2008.
c- Yeah, that's pretty recent. And this goes back to some of the research that you did it relates pretty much in line with it so when I watched that I just thought about some of the things you were doing. So, are there many a or a few misconceptions that the public may have in some of the research that you do?
m- Well, not so much the public but certainly the industry tries to sobes because I mean how mainstream can we get the industry has been around for 50 years and all we want is just the animals to just be treated a little nicer I mean its I mean its about an un-radical a message as one can get. Uh but the industry because we are so effective in what we do the industry tries to paint us as kind of this radical fringe saying that that we really don't care about uh you know that we have nothing but shelters which is not really true um and that you know we're just out to uh animal rights out to take away a burger essentially. Um, but that doesn't really fun people know who we are we've been around forever we have ten and a half/eleven million constituents meaning people who've sent us money the last few years that's like one of out of thirty Americans who's a member I mean people know who we are and we've done a good job show people what we do and it's exciting to me that we are doing more resources to farm animals since they're the vast majority of them are exploited in nature.
c- And do you think there is a reason why maybe the public they might know about the Humane Society it is very easy to go online, you can see commercials as you've said, but some of these issues you know swine flue, avian flu, or even just about factory farms do you know why maybe the public only thinks certain things in relation to these topics-maybe the media portrays them a certain way?
m- Well the media uh for us, the media has been pretty good to us so we have a good relationship um uh. I mean you know some of it I mean meat and dairy are just big advertisers obviously so you don't want to be too critical the industry has to be careful about being too critical of these industries um and you know there was this big case of this uh BGH research hormone, growth hormone, that was squashed because of pressure from advertisers and actually never saw the light of day. Um so you know there is some of that, but for us we're I don't think we suffer much from, from that just because we're we're like the cat and puppy. We're they going to say about us?
c- Yeah, and some of I think I know the commercial and it has like a song with the dogs in it that you can adopt I do think that the Humane Society does have this appearance that you can help rescue animals um and so I think some of these other issues as they relate to factory farming
m- Hm hm.
c- other things isn't as known unless somebody is into the Humane Society.
m- That's very true yeah and uh I mean yeah it's been pretty much ignored by the media, the kind of factory farming connections with these diseases, but it's kind of understandable. I mean they are kind of reactionary rather than proactive in looking at kind of the root cause and it's all about should you get vaccinated instead of saying you know why is there a virus running around in the first place? But.
c- Yeah I think maybe it might have been CNN was one of the one's who went back to where one of the first cases.
m- (yawn) CNN did a good job, BBC did a good job. Um there is a finished broadcast I think that Media One seems to be doing a good job. There is a few, but that to me is the big story.
c- Yeah, should you get a vaccine, or they don't really go into depth about it . It has died down a little bit. I think people are still aware but about being sick or the chance of getting sick I think that is what they would hope to inform the public about anyway, how to prevent and things like that maybe not so much about the history. Is there anything else you'd like to add...anything you are currently working on or future things?
m- It's pretty much swine flu all day every day that's why, that's my year essentially.
c- Yeah, and so you wrote a book about avian flu are you going to do something with the swine flu?
m- Probably not, I don't I'm coming to realize that it kind of matters less what the public thinks because you know it doesn't matter what the public thinks in a political climate or it matters less than what the kind of power sources say so I think I am doing more work with kind of policy makers and opinion leaders and the scientific community rather than writing a kind of public conception.
c- So, is the research you are doing now basically going to be used for lectures?
m- So it's academic, so so these so instead of you know writing a length book I am publishing in peer review scientific journals and I get the scientific community on board because its the people on board that are important.
c- That's true. Um my last question is what is your favorite color?
m- My favorite color. Uh, shoo, I'm going to have to go with red.
c- Red. That's a good color. Well, ok I think that concludes our conversation.
c- Thank you very much.
m- Happy to help.
dr. michael greger, director of public health and animal agriculture, hsus