Smithfield Foods Phasing Out Gestation Crates

My colleague emailed me last week, “I never thought I’d see this, not in my lifetime.” On January 25, 2007, Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the U.S., announced it will be phasing out hog gestation crates over the next decade.
Several days later, Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest pork producer followed suit.
Before we go any further, are you familiar with a gestation crate? According to Bgunzy Humeston, an Iowa farmer: “Picture a sow in a steel bar crate with 3″ of room on each side and about 9-12″ from front to back to move. The animal can’t turn around – she’s always facing the same direction, with her feed and water at her face.” In the crate; for life. The lives of breeding sows are spent repeatedly getting pregnant through artificial insemination and giving birth (as are the lives of dairy cows who must have a calf in order to continue to produce milk, but I digress…)

Not surprisingly, the pigs develop compulsive behaviors when kept in the crates, such as repeatedly chewing on the cage bars. Smithfield has announced that the crates will be replaced with “group housing” where the animals can socialize. Ideally, Smithfield would follow the “Animal Welfare Approved” guidelines developed by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), currently practiced by Niman Ranch farmers and endorsed by Willie Nelson and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. However this has not been mentioned by Smithfield. (described here)
What prompted Smithfield’s decision? Was it the legislation passed in Florida in 2002 and recently in Arizona, banning gestation crates? Was it because the EU has banned gestation crates? Was it the “Boss Hog” expose in December 14’s Rolling Stone with a picture of hundreds of dead hogs in a pile outside a Smithfield facility? Or was it McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, as Smithfield describes, asking them to get rid of the crates?
McDonald’s indicates that “animal welfare is an integral part of their corporate social responsibility efforts and supply chain practices” and led the way a few years ago, in requiring their egg suppliers to end the forced molting (starvation) of hens, an industry-wide practice to increase egg production. Within a year or so of McDonald’s requirement, the United Egg Producers (UEP) essentially phased-out the practice. Wal-Mart has been very active in increasing responsible management practices, particularly in regards to organic food and apparently, have pressured Smithfield to get rid of the crates.
I find Smithfield’s announcement to be great news, but question the time frame. Why is 10 years needed to phase out these crates and is this time frame acceptable to Smithfield’s customers who are eager to have these crates out of their supply chain?


This post is part of a new series on observations of animal-related business practices by Janice Neitzel. With an MBA in Sustainable Management and professional facilitation skills, Janice Neitzel engages stakeholders in facilitating innovative solutions to reduce environmental impact, improve social responsibility, and raise animal welfare standards, thereby, improving reputation and increasing brand value. (