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. (

10 responses

  1. The first decade of the 21st century has seen major advances for farm animals so far—advances few of us would have ever imagined would occur so quickly. We’ve seen Florida ban gestation crates and Arizona ban both gestation crates and veal crates. California banned foie gras production and the City of Chicago banned the sale of foie gras. Numerous companies are refusing to sell battery cage eggs. Just three months after the Arizona vote mentioned above, the largest pig producers in the U.S. and Canada announced that they will phase out their use of gestation crates. As well, the U.S.’s two largest veal producers recently announced that they will stop confining calves in veal crates. Clearly, Arizona showed that the writing is on the wall and that intensive confinement of farm animals will end in the US.
    For years the animal movement has been right on factory farming. Now, it’s not only on the right side, it’s on the winning side.
    More can be seen on these historic developments at the web site of the Humane Society of the United States:

  2. The big buyers of pork have a tremendous amount of power, and I’m sure they could cause gestation crates to be phased out in a much shorter period than 10 years (that seems like a very long time to me too). Who are the largest buyers in the U.S.? Perhaps they need to hear from their customers that 10 years is far too long…

  3. I’m impressed with the achievement of those who made this happen. Anyone that interacts with animals understands how wrong this is. They are complex beings. I could not think of my terrier being treated in that fashion. Thank you for making just a bit more sense in an often senseless world.

  4. To paraphrase a great philosopher, you can tell a lot about a society by the way they treat animals. Changing the source of our food supply from caring farmers to faceless corporations like Smithfield has let us turn a blind eye to the realities of our unnatural man made food chain. Maybe phasing out these crates is the first step in recognizing that we need to remember that the meat you eat was once a living animal and that it deserves the same respect as any other animal. You wouldn’t dream of treating you dog or cat the way these factory farmed animals are treated, and pigs are as smart or smarter than dogs or cats.

  5. I spoke to a staffer at PETA and they said they have been pushing this change for a long time (along with the Humane Society) and that they will continue to push Smithfield to make the change sooner.
    Direct all your friends who still eat meat to It’s powerful stuff.

  6. Smithfield’s decision is a significant victory for animal advocates—there’s no doubt about that. It demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that big corporations are finally getting the message.
    The animal welfare movement has worked hard to educate consumers about agribusiness’ cruelties and that work is beginning to pay off. Once consumers understand the atrocities implicit in the factory farming system, they aren’t bashful about voicing their opposition. This is what happened in Florida and Arizona when voters outlawed gestation and veal crates in their states; it’s what happened in Chicago and California when citizens spoke up and out about the cruelty of foie gras.
    But it’s not time to rest on our laurels. Awareness of the problem is the first step in a hard fight to end inhumane treatment altogether. The root of the problem of factory farming is that animals are viewed as production units—not sentient beings. And that’s what has to change.

  7. What people who aren’t from a farming background need to realize is that us farmers do things for a reason. Crates are actually a better way to house sows. We are able to keep a closer watch on the sows. We are also able to care for their nutrion much better because we are able to individually feed them. In recent studies it has been shown that sows actually prefer crates to pens. So before you go bashing on crates and farmers in general, maybe you should get all the facts.

  8. Alex:
    you’re saying that “studies” have shown that sows prefer not to be able to move for their entire lives? Right. By the way, I grew up on a small goat and hog farm, so I know that farmers do things for a reason. For example, the reason for gestation crates is “bigger profits, less work”.

Leave a Reply