By Josh Balk
More than ever before, Americans are demonstrating an immense interest in the behavior of corporations. Companies engaging in irresponsible business practices are facing a rising tide of objections, but by the same token, many major companies are taking significant steps forward to improve their practices, and these steps deserve praise.
Such is the case today with so many companies in the food industry vowing to improve animal welfare in their supply chains, notably by phasing out pork from systems that confine their breeding pigs in gestation crates.
Within the pork industry, most breeding sows are confined day and night in gestation crates during their four-month pregnancy. These cages are roughly the same size as the animals’ bodies and designed to prevent them from even turning around. Mother pigs are subsequently transferred into another crate to give birth, re-impregnated, and put back into a gestation crate. This happens pregnancy after pregnancy for their entire lives, adding up to years of virtual immobilization.
Because they are inherently inhumane, gestation crates have come under fire from veterinarians, farmers, animal welfare advocates, animal scientists and consumers. Renowned animal scientist Temple Grandin, Ph.D., compares life in a gestation crate to “living in an airline seat” and implores that they’ve “got to go.” In an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, President George W. Bush’s former speechwriter, Matthew Scully, aptly describes a typical gestation crate operation as a “sunless hell of metal and concrete.”
Here’s where corporations emerge. Responding to consumer demand and scientific evidence, they are changing the farming practices for the better. This year alone, our nation’s largest restaurant chains, like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, have enacted policies demanding that their pork suppliers phase out gestation crates. Many of the largest grocery store chains like Costco, Kroger and Safeway followed suit. Sysco, the largest food distributor in the world, and Compass Group and Sodexo, the world’s largest food service companies that run the dining operations at tens of thousands of schools, hospitals and stadiums, have all announced that they are working with their suppliers to eliminate gestation crates. And Kraft, the maker of iconic pork brand Oscar Mayer, has also mandated that its suppliers end gestation crate confinement of pigs.
These companies, which make up a virtual “who’s who” list of power players in the food world, are using their purchasing power to bring about historic change in how millions of farm animals are treated. When Burger King enacted its policy to eliminate gestation crates, the company stated its objective to “ensure the appropriate and proper treatment of animals by [its] vendors and suppliers.” Sodexo was even more specific in its commitment, stating, “Starting today, all future RFPs [request for proposals] for pork and products containing pork will include requirements to demonstrate that gestation stalls will be phased out of the supply chain…”
These corporate initiatives are tangible and they’re transforming our food system for the better. Because of these companies, the pork industry is shifting to a more humane production system that is better aligned with the way consumers feel animals should be treated.
Of course, there’s more to be done to ensure that the behavior of food corporations reflects our societal belief that animals, including those raised for food, deserve protection from abuse. But what’s special about America is our drive to improve upon the status quo, and that drive perpetuates constant innovation and betterment. While passing laws is a vital aspect to protecting animals from cruelty and abuse, when historians look back on how we ultimately solve one of the most critical issues of farm animal welfare, they’ll write how the free market led the way.
Josh Balk is the director of corporate policy for farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo: Wikipedia user, Baileynorwoodrocks