SAN RAMON, CA: Last week's protest outside Safeway's annual shareholders conference by PETA had all the makings of a PR person's worst nightmare.Along with a 25-foot banner reading "Safeway means animal cruelty,
PETA had planned a bit of street theater in which activists costumed as machete-wielding butchers would "skin alive
compatriots in animal outfits, protesting the grocery chain's refusal to improve conditions for farmed animals.
But only days before the meeting, Safeway's public affairs department began working with PETA, and quickly announced new standards for monitoring conditions with meat suppliers - thereby saving itself from the activists' antics.
"Until last week, Safeway had been totally ignoring us, and had not made a single encouraging statement regarding animal welfare,
said PETA vegan campaign director Bruce Friedrich. "Last week, we got a call from their VP of public affairs, (Brian Dowling), wanting to talk. We were able to hammer out the first pledge in US history from a grocery chain to improve farmed-animal welfare."
That groundbreaking agreement led PETA to stage a supportive rally instead of a protest, complete with cheerleaders spelling out "Thank you,
to entering shareholders.
PETA also formally ended its 20-state boycott of the chain, which began in February 2002 and included letters to shareholders from actor Alec Baldwin, a "shameway
website, and protests in front of stores.
While Safeway's Dowling said that PETA's boycott did not have any effect on business and was not a factor in the new standards, PETA's Friedrich sees a stronger connection. "It's just a truism that you don't want your corporation targeted by activists,
he said. "My hunch is the timing of (Dowling's) call was not purely coincidental."
Friedrich added that the shareholders meeting was moved to San Ramon, about an hour outside of San Francisco, to discourage protesters - a claim Dowling denies.
Despite outstanding differences, both organizations are cautiously optimistic for a future relationship. "We have found some common ground with them,
said Dowling. "I suspect over time we'll continue to communicate with them one way or another."