Animal activists tap Wall Street to change farm practices

The Humane Society of the United States is putting a new strategy to bear on the animal agriculture business.

Reuters reports that the animal rights group has bought shares in four major financial services companies, including JP Morgan Chase, in a bid to use shareholder pressure to force two of the nation's largest pork producers to stop housing pregnant sows in gestation stalls.

The investment - a relatively small $3,000 or so worth of stock in each company, but large enough to introduce proposals during shareholder meetings - was targeted at investors in Tyson Foods Inc. and Seaboard Foods, a unit of Seaboard Corp.

Reuters noted that the group has successfully used such shareholder advocacy in the past to pressure food and agriculture companies to change corporate buying habits and production practices:

Now, the Humane Society is taking a new strategy: tell investors in the livestock industry it's a bad financial move for farmers to use this equipment.

The Humane Society said it plans to introduce shareholder proposals next year that, among other things, will point out that dozens of food retailers have vowed to eventually only buy pork from farmers and other sources that don't use gestation stalls. By not changing over to alternative animal housing, claims the group, Tyson and Seaboard are putting their lucrative contracts with these customers at risk.

Tyson Foods told Reuters in an email that it is committed to humane animal treatment at all stages of food production, and expects the same from those farmers who supply products to it. Seaboard Foods, the nation's third-largest pork producer, could not be reached for comment.

Reuters characterized the Humane Society's move as the "latest salvo in the war over how food is produced in the United States, with farmers and agribusiness on one side and food safety groups and animal-rights organizations on the other."