By Paul Shapiro
“You’d have to have rocks in your head to build a new sow barn with gestating sow stalls.” That’s how the Western Producer, an agribusiness trade publication, began a recent editorial.
Yet, it seems that some in the world of pork production, and their hired PR frontmen, may indeed have rocks in their heads. How else can you explain the behavior of companies like Tyson Foods that continue to defend locking pigs in two-foot-wide metal gestation crates where the 500-pound animals can’t even turn around for, essentially, their entire lives?
And, a PR firm associated with Tyson took to Pork Network’s web site this past week to implore pork producers not give up on immobilizing sows, but rather to fight against The Humane Society of the United States by just saying “no” to improving animal welfare.
Inexplicably, Pork Network published this irresponsible column while refusing to publish a rebuttal to it from a major pork buyer that’s getting gestation crates out of its supply chain. What makes the situation even odder is that Pork Network has already editorialized itself on the issue, telling producers to stop defending the extreme confinement practice, noting: “[O]n the issue of gestation-sow stalls, at least, it’s increasingly apparent that you will lose the battle.”
Indeed, nearly every major national restaurant and grocery chain in the country has announced their opposition to gestation crates and plans to phase them out of their supply chains. Major pork producers like Smithfield, Cargill and Hormel also are publicly moving away from this particularly inhumane practice. Just this past week, Canada’s second-largest pork producer, Olymel, announced it will phase out the gestation crates, too, based on demands from its major customers. (Another Canadian pork giant made a similar announcement six years ago.) Meanwhile, many family farmers have been raising pigs without the use of gestation crates for generations.
The future is so clear that Meat & Poultry magazine wrote, “This is no longer a debate about the viability of gestation crates in hog production, but rather a discussion about how producers will respond to meet expectations.” And why Meatingplace said of the gestation crate issue: “Game over…The move [is] inevitable.”
Not surprisingly, the ag industry’s own polling data confirms what common sense tells us: Americans don’t want social, intelligent animals to be locked in cramped cages and lined up like parked cars for months on end. That’s one reason more than 80 percent of respondents in a Farm Bureau-funded survey don’t find keeping sows in crates to be humane. Or why only 10 percent of pork producers in a new National Pork Board survey said they plan on using the crates in the future.
Should pork producers continue their transition away from this outdated and nearly universally denounced practice? Should they heed the marketplace? Or should they listen to a PR firm encouraging farmers to go backward on their progress and refuse to meet marketplace demands?
Perhaps they should listen to animal scientists like Temple Grandin, Ph.D., who are very clear with their viewpoint, saying “We’ve got to treat animals right, and gestation stalls have got to go.” Or even do something that every businessperson in America is taught from day one – listen to their customers. Choosing to ignore them may just be the epitome of having rocks in your head.
Paul Shapiro is vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him at http://twitter.com/pshapiro
[image credit: The United Stated Humane Society]