It’s the first day of spring. The flowers are blooming, the birds are returning… and the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM) is demonstrating.

As they do each year on the first day of spring, the animal rights group is holding its “Great American Meatout,” a call for Americans to abstain from meat for a day. FARM hides the fact that animal rights dogma is behind the event (even keeping the group’s name off many Meatout materials), instead pretending that the annual abstaining is all about health. But there’s more to Meatout than meets the eye.

It is widely believed that FARM gets most of its financial support from the organic- and natural-foods industries, and at last year’s Meatout event on Capitol Hill, vegetarian and “fake meat” dishes were served along with glossy advertisements of products from Fantastic Foods and LightLife. Visitors were handed cents-off coupons for these name-brand products at the end of the buffet line. [To learn more about FARM’s financing, click here.]

This year, those two companies and 11 others are prominently noted on the Meatout web site — along with a form telling vegetarian companies that kicking in $3,000 to Meatout will earn them “listing in Meatout 2002 publications,” “mention in radio advertisements, talk shows, and interviews,” “distribution of 15,000 product coupons to interested customers,” and more, while a $1,000 payment will get them “distribution of product samples and literature” and other perks. “This is truly the best PR/marketing deal available,” the site says.

FARM’s Meatout materials brag that “last year, we held events in nearly 2,000 communities in all 50 states and several other countries,” though many consisted of just a few activists. This year, FARM plans to exploit the Surgeon General’s “major alarm on obesity” to encourage Americans to give up meat, and even tries to scare consumers, stating, “Mad Cow disease may cross the Atlantic any day.” But for FARM it’s not about health: “Promotion of meatless foods to mainstream consumers is the most effective way of reducing the number of animals abused and slaughtered.”

In past years, Meatout has been promoted by virtually identical letters appearing in newspapers across the country, a FARM trademark. FARM’s communications director, Laurelee Blanchard, operates a program called Letters From FARM. It consists of orchestrated letters sent to hundreds of papers at once. Blanchard writes the letters herself and faxes the newspaper editors from her home in Hawaii, with each transmission bearing the name and address of an activist who lives in that paper’s delivery area. Blanchard then e-mails her network of “signers” with a copy of the letter sent on their behalf, instructing them what to say if an editor calls to verify the letter’s authorship.

FARM’s letter campaigns and claims of 2,000 Meatout events are meant to convince the media and Americans that the group has a massive grassroots network, and that Meatout has massive support. But the truth is, when it comes down to it, there’s just not much on FARM’s plate.