Hillshire deal sees religious activism

Faith groups call for look at Tyson

Posted: August 24, 2014 at 2:19 a.m.

Some faith-based groups are finding themselves in the middle of a food fight.

Increasingly, religious organizations are lending voices to debates over genetically modified crops, animal confinement and market consolidation. The groups say they have a moral obligation to protect family farms, the environment and consumers.

"It's important that we live out what we're called to do in the world," said Edith Rasell, minister for economic justice for the United Church of Christ based in Cleveland. "We believe it's important that whatever influence we may have, and whatever support and knowledge that we bring to the situation, sides with people who are getting messed over by groups that have more power."

A month ago, the United Church of Christ joined Catholic Rural Life of Des Moines, Iowa, and other religious and secular organizations calling for the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Justice Department to take a hard look at Tyson Foods' acquisition of Hillshire Brands.

Tyson and Hillshire pushed back their deadline for the acquisition a second time Tuesday in response to a request from the Antitrust Division.

The companies stressed that the request covered "a very small portion" of the combined businesses, and they were working with the Justice Department to resolve the matter quickly.

Kevin Murphy, owner and founder of Food Chain Communications of Kansas City, Mo., said at the Arkansas Farm Bureau's Officers and Leaders Conference that food activists -- including some religious faiths -- were having success changing the food system by claiming a moral high ground.

But Murphy said that wasn't a good thing. Agriculture needs a "moral answer to a moral inquiry," he said.

"You have to be able to go to your church and talk with them about food production because right now somebody else is," he said. "The race is on for the moral high ground. We are standing and watching as our opponents lap us in the issue of ethics in food production."

Murphy, who said he is an active Christian, argued that faith-based groups use an appeal to ethics without fully considering the science and struggles that farmers deal with every day. He called out the Anglican Communion, Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and Catholic Rural Life.

"Originally developed to help people in rural communities by giving them access to the sacraments, to information, to teaching literature, now all of a sudden [Catholic Rural Life] opposes factory farming, animal confinement, antibiotic use," he said. "They've gone from giving access to farmers in rural communities to now weighing in to whether you should use antibiotics or not."

Jim Ennis, Catholic Rural Life executive director, said faith-based organizations have a unique role to play.

"For most people, farming and agriculture is out of sight and out of mind," he said. "We speak from a Catholic voice with concern about the importance of having farm families on the land."

The organization's view of the Tyson acquisition fits into the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, he said.

"When you have monopolies, that can provide the opportunity for a lot of mischief, and we've seen it happen in the past," he said. "The church has the obligation to look and see if this is fair and equitable."

Rasell -- who has a Ph.D. in economics and worked for 12 years at the Economic Policy Institute, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. -- said she uses her education to explain her faith.

"Within the faith community, there are people with all levels of expertise," Rasell said. "I welcome the opportunity to translate and put faith into a kind of perspective."

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