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What Is Driving the Shift Away From Sow Gestation Crates?

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Monday June 10th, 2013 | 11 Comments

humane societyOn factory farms, pregnant pigs are typically confined in gestation crates, which are so small they can’t even turn around in them. After giving birth, the sows are then put in another equally small crate for a few weeks. After weaning, they are put back inside a gestation crate. The cycle continues for up to four years.

The good news is that the cruel confinement system is being phased out by many food companies. Over the last year, many large food companies have made announcements that they are phasing out gestation crates, including fast food chains such as McDonald’s, and supermarket chains such as Kroger. Recently, Johnsonville Sausage became the latest company to make an announcement about gestation crates. The country’s largest sausage brand announced that it is phasing out gestation crates from its supply chain by 2025.

What is driving the food and agriculture industries to phase out gestation crates? To find out, I talked to Josh Balk, Director of Corporate Policy for the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) Farm Animal Protection department. “In most cases, when presented with the facts about gestation crates, they work to eliminate them,” according to Balk. Companies simply don’t want practices that don’t pay off. “There isn’t a major company in favor of gestation crates,” Balk said.

The HSUS “works hand-in-hand with the largest food companies.” They do so by sitting down with companies and talking about gestation crates. “That’s usually all it takes for companies to make great strides,” Balk declared. Major companies talk to their suppliers and give them “plenty of time to change.” Although Balk wishes that “gestation crates ended tomorrow,” he acknowledges that “it takes time to make changes.”

Balk cited several drivers for the shift away from gestation crates and other confinement methods:

  • Legislation—States are passing laws to protect farm animals. The state of New Jersey has a bill pending that would ban gestation crates.
  • Meat reduction efforts—”Everyday consumers are starting to reduce their meat consumption,” Balk said. For example, John Hopkins University brought Meatless Monday back from World War II. Burger King supports Meatless Mondays, and even tweets about it. One of the Sierra Club’s New Year’s resolution is to encourage members to eat less meat.
  • Consumer demand—Polls show that consumers support better animal welfare practices. How farm animals are treated “causes a more visceral reaction,” Balk points out. “Most people have pets and that’s their connection with animals. We would be outraged if our cats and dogs were treated this way.”

Why did pig farmers shift to gestation crates? It isn’t that they are cruel, Balk said. Most pig farms have been reduced since World War II. “The model of family farms has shifted in all areas of animal agriculture.”  Balk added that since World War II “there has been a shift to smaller confinement with little consideration of animal behavior.” Pig farmers moved to gestation crates because industry leaders told them it was the future.

How the HSUS engages consumers

The HSUS is a mainstream animal advocacy organization. Balk told me that the organization prides itself on being a mainstream organization. “We are the largest animal organization there is, and we pride ourselves in being mainstream.” While some animal advocacy organizations push vegetarianism or veganism, Balk believes that vegetarians/vegans and meat eaters “can agree that farm animals should be treated well.”

How does the HSUS use its mainstream status to engage the public? The simple answer is, through online advertising and social media. The HSUS “does a lot of advertising online” to bring awareness to the average consumer, and is “very active on Facebook & Twitter,” according to Balk. The Facebook page for the HSUS has 1.7 million fans.

Photo: Wikipedia user, SlimVirgin


▼▼▼      11 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Oren Jaffe

    I love how corporations and organizations such as HSUS “Talk” about gestation free pigs etc etc etc., but no one talks about HOW THEY ARE GOING TO DO THIS. Where is the transparency, traceability, or third party assurance so we (consumers) KNOW that pigs are out of gestation crates? If Johnsonville, Smithfield, Cargill or other pork producers were serious about making these changes, we would see them supporting Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certification or something similar that is credible and transparent. Until then, all this talk is just BS….talk and PR. Don’t believe the Hype until you know through transparency, traceability, and TRUTH!

    • fearnot

      do you work for the HFCA

    • Guest

      In the article the question is asked how did the Humane Society achieve these results and the response is online advertising and social media.

      Along with thousands of other volunteers in this state I stood on streetcorners and sat at tables engaged in endless discussions with people to sign a ballot initiative. It ended up at the governor’s desk for a signature that changed agriculture in this state. It was one of the more successful and widely publicized achievements by the Humane Society in the area of agriculture. Since I was involved early when it included only a few dozen people I am qualified to say that it was not a Facebook or online movement.

      Ohio now has an agricultural board with a complete set of regulations and enforcement for the humane treatment of farm animals. This is how they intend to achieve change.

  • laurelladesborough

    What I find highly disturbing about this article and the discussion of gestation crates, is that HSUS is discussing the use of gestation crates with heads of food companies. Now it seems to me that this discussion would be far more appropriate if it was held between the animal producers (beef, pork, poultry) and the heads of companies. Certainly, having the HSUS talk about what is appropriate animal husbandry practices makes NO sense. The HSUS leadership or staffers have NO background in animal husbandry, just a good background in PR and propaganda and suckering the public into donating dollars for pitiful dogs that don’t end up getting those dollars….one percent of the donations go to animals!!! So, what actual animal care knowledge does the HSUS have??? NONE! So, the HSUS with NO animal husbandry expertise is talking to heads of companies with NO animal husbandry expertise and these two entities come to a decision about HOW these animals are to be managed??? What professional or business enterprise would base judgments on the conduct of their enterprise on the input of those with NO business knowledge? Does this make any sense at all? Only in one way…that the general public has been thoroughly propagandized by HSUS about animal issues and the general public now has NO background of experience with actual farming or most types of animal care so they are ready able and willing to believe whatever nonsense is put forward by HSUS. Talk about an unscientific way to make decisions affecting the lives of animals and the lives of those producing food for the country!!! Totally unscientific. Anyone using a bit of logic on the matter would have to wonder about the mental abilities of the heads of these companies who are acquiesing to the wiles of HSUS. And, I am not a farmer or an animal producer or associated in any capacity with meat production or sales, just a person who has some knowledge of animal husbandry practices and what actually works and WHY some animal husbandry practices are used!

    • Chad Maxwell

      Have you ever been to a pig farm? If you had, you would understand that it doesn’t take an animal husbandry expert to tell you whether or not a gestation crate is a humane “tool” of agriculture. It is used for financial economics, no more, no less, with no regard to the sow. It is a question of ethics and responsibility. While I do not condone all of HSUS’s activities, they are raising awareness to an extremely cruel practice. The reason they have chose to target Food Companies is because corporate agriculture refused to dialogue or accept any responsibility. The National Pork Boards responses were denial, refusal, more denial and more refusal. In fact, you may have been able to script their responses, which flies in the face of not only HSUS but the vast majority of Americans once they understand the pork production process. Consequently, it was only after pressure from Food Companies on corporate agriculture that gestation crate changes have been realized. I am in the agriculture and meat industry. I hunt and I know where my food comes from, and I also know that I would prefer to pay more for a gestation crate free pork chop!

      • laurelladesborough

        While you hunt and you know where your food comes from, have you ever dealt with real live hogs in large numbers? Do you have any idea what happens when sows give birth to piglets? Do you have any idea as to what happens when a group of sows are housed together in an open pen arrangement? Do you have any idea as to what happens to the farmer or workers IF they have to go near these sows with piglets? As far as corporate agriculture or ANY farmer sitting down to discuss animal husbandry practices with HSUS…that would be really really stupid since HSUS has ONE agenda…to END ANIMAL AGRICULTURE. Do you get that? This is a vegan campaign to end meat on the table. PERIOD. And, to end the ownership of pets, the use of animals in zoos, research, etc. IF you don’t get that, there are several outstanding detailed books out there explaining what is happening and the ultimate goals of the AR agenda. Only a fool would sit down and discuss animal husbandry with HSUS as HSUS is NOT A STAKEHOLDER!

        • Chad Maxwell

          Yes, I have dealt with hogs in large numbers. I do know what happens with sows after they give birth, but we are not talking about farrowing crates, we are talking about gestation crates. You should know that there is a difference. I also know what happens when gestating and lactating sows are grouped together in large free penning situations. As I have a company that provides loose housing for sows and an alternative to the farrowing crates called www. naturalfarrowingsystem.com. I was also the former Director of Livestock for Niman Ranch, the largest all natural meat company in the USA. I also know that animals negative interactions can be managed, by space, nutrition and animal husbandry, as opposed to power-washers and crates. Likewise, you have to look at genetic selection as well. As for approaching sows with pigs…it can be risky if your sows have never had any interaction with humans, but once again, this is animal husbandry and genetic selection. But, I suspect that this response will be a mute point with you, as your mind is set. Of course, I am sure that you also know that there are commercial operators that have been gestation crate free prior to HSUS. The end of the day, this isn’t about HSUS, its about sound humane farm animal practices. HSUS has merely been a driver raising the public awareness. The stupidity that exists in the dialogue was the response of denial and non-engagement by corporate ag…where as they missed the opportunity for positive PR, only to be hammered with negative PR. We live in an area where we have to be responsive to our customers customers and NPPC and NPB failed the farmers and cause they are entrusted to represent.

  • Josh Balk

    Hey there, great article and good questions. Major food corporations that have made
    commitments to eliminate gestation crates in their supply chain routinely have
    auditing and traceability within their supply chain to ensure compliance to
    their standards. Also, since virtually all of these companies are publicly
    traded, not following through with a commitment to shareholders could lead to
    serious SEC problems, let alone with their customers.

    Regarding HSUS, as well as having staff who are scientists and
    farmers, we also allow science to guide our efforts in improving the lives of
    animals. On the gestation crates issue, Dr. Temple Grandin, perhaps the most
    renowned animal scientist in history and member of the American Meat Institute
    Hall of Fame, is the leading opponent to gestation crates. She famously said “We’ve got to treat animals right, and gestation stalls have got to go.” She went on to say “Gestation crates are a real problem.…Basically you’re asking a sow to live in an airline seat.…I think it’s something that needs to be phased out.”

    We couldn’t agree more and we’re proud that the food industry is collaborating to ensure that mother pigs are able to at least turn around.

    • Emily

      It is an outstanding sense of victory when NGOs can say they are
      working with “business.” The question then becomes are NGO experts
      really penetrating the buyers in these large organizations or are they only
      dealing with the “mouth pieces” of marketing and public affairs at
      these large food service and retail companies?

      I love that HSUS has excellent relations with its stakeholders in play with the
      largest meat producers in the world, grocers and food service providers. It is
      awesome to have on board, hands on, academic expertise like Dr. Grandin,
      however my question is —do you have full supply chain transparency with these
      operations-honestly? Can you measure the actual improvements taking place and
      report upon them year over year? Do you rely on third party auditing to verify
      improvements are in play?

      If you could please describe HSUS’ steps towards supply chain transparency,
      benchmarking and measuring progress I think that would be outstanding towards
      educating the rest of the consumer community including the supply chain purchasing
      body– which producers/businesses are truly making progress for animal welfare
      and what they are doing to bring their supply chains and feeder farms along
      with them towards the same progress.

      What is the functional definition of gestation crate free pork at this time?

      As I understand it, and it would seem many “buyers” are just learning
      about the Sow’s life and that there are several stations she must go through in
      her life time and unfortunately repeat in various crates both in
      gestation/conception and then in after birth in farrowing crates, it would be
      good to know what “gestation crate free pork” really means and what
      is it that we are collectively pushing for in a common vision for change?

      Thank you!

      • laurelladesborough

        Do not imagine that Dr. Grandin is “on board” with HSUS. Dr. Grandin is an expert in her own right and owes nothing of any kind to HSUS. Now, Dr. Grandin is knowledgeable. I cannot say the same for the HSUS leadership. They did not grow up on farms, have no background in animal husbandry, but DO have a great background in propaganda and in promoting their vegan agenda in multiple media outlets. While Dr. Grandin has the respect of farmers and cattlemen, I cannot say the same is the case for the HSUS types.

        • Christi Farris

          Dr. Grandin says gestation crates need to go and it’s no way to treat an animal. Look it up.