How Some Food Retailers Are Coming to the Rescue of Pigs

By Josh Balk

Foodies, locavores and flexitarians. If the twenty-first century lexicon is any evidence, food issues have reached a new peak in consumer consciousness. And when it comes to our food supply, an important concern for many Americans is the welfare of farm animals. Because of this interest in where our food comes from, how it’s produced and a desire to do less harm, we’re entering a hopeful time in the evolution of our food system.

Since World War II, the number of farm animals packed inside giant warehouses has steadily grown. Gone are the days of Old MacDonald’s farm where animals roamed relatively freely. Now, most are intensively confined, many to the point of perpetual constraint. Most farm animals never even see the light of day or feel grass beneath their feet. Among the most severe problems arising from this shift to an industrial food system is the confinement of mother pigs in gestation crates.

Gestation crates are metal cages used by the pork industry to immobilize mother pigs day and night during their four-month pregnancies. These cages are roughly the same size as the animals’ bodies and prevent them from even turning around for months on end. The pigs are 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.

In recent months, an unlikely ally has emerged for these unfortunate pigs: the food retail industry. After working with The Humane Society of the United States, many of the largest restaurant chains, grocery stores and food manufacturers have announced policies to eliminate gestation crates from their pork supply chain. This consequential list includes food industry giants like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Costco, Kroger and Safeway.

How has the pork industry itself responded to these policies? Some leading pork companies, like Smithfield, Hormel and Cargill, are heading in the right direction by reducing their use of gestation crates and phasing in more humane housing systems. These actions are not only good for pigs, they’re good for business. By aligning with the policies of the largest pork buyers, these companies are creating a practical business model.

Others, most notably Tyson Foods – another top pork producer – have taken a backward approach. Rather than embracing this clear trajectory in the pork industry, Tyson continues to defend the abhorrent practice of intensively confining breeding pigs in cramped cages. It’s equivalent to defending the virtue of buying typewriters in a world that’s shifted to computers.

The company’s “the customer is always wrong” attitude does not bode well for Tyson’s future. Its stock rating has recently been lowered by Bank of America and JP Morgan. Even a first-year business school student would realize that investing in a company that refuses to comply with the wishes of its customers would be a bad decision.

Tyson’s public relations and stock market drubbing isn’t getting a helpful reprieve from the company’s trade association, the National Pork Producers Council. In defending gestation crates in a July National Journal article, NPPC’s director of communications Dave Warner callously remarked, “So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets….I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.” The organization’s CEO eventually apologized for the comment, but only after an uproar from the public that inundated the council with so many online complaints that its Facebook page was taken down.

When companies like Tyson refuse to listen to the largest food retailers about supply chain ethics, and when the NPPC mocks the very idea that consumers should be concerned about caging pigs to a point where these animals can’t even turn around, it’s no wonder they are losing the gestation crate argument. With the country’s largest retailers supporting a gestation crate-free future, the weeks and months ahead will truly be a test for which pork companies have the business sense to innovate with the times, and which ones will allow their stubbornness to put their own company at financial risk.

Josh Balk is the Director of Corporate Policy for Farm Animal Protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

[Image credit: numbphoto, Flickr]

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19 responses

  1. The pork industry should be ashamed to defend gestation crate confinement. What a lack of leadership they have. 

  2. Thats great all these food companies are getting on board finally! And the pork industry people sound crazy. Too bad for the pigs. :(

  3. Wow – McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Kroger, and Safeway going crate-free? Tyson would be foolish to continue lagging on this issue, especially since its competitors are making the shift.

  4. That ridiculous quote about no one asking the sow if she’d like to turn around really shows the divide between this industry and its customers–who may not be their customers for long if NPPC and Tyson don’t move away from intensive confinement.

  5. It is clear that these forward thinking companies are on the right side of history! Future generations will be proud of their efforts to improve animal welfare. Meanwhile, it is clear that the NPPC and Tyson’s are trying desperately to hold on the past – their grandchildren will, I am sure, be ashamed of their position on gestation crates.

  6. It’s amazing to see how much progress has been made on this issue in such a short time frame. The writing is on the wall that these crates should not be used, so I’m confused why some companies would still insist on using them when there are more humane alternatives.

  7. Gestation crates are a cruel practice that the American people will no longer support.  It’s wonderful to hear that companies like McDonald’s and Burger King are getting rid of them.  Tyson, it’s time to change!  

  8. I was a volunteer with a grassroots citizen initiative passed in 2006, which made Arizona the first state in the US to prohibit veal cages, and the second to ban gestation crates. People were appalled to learn that industrial factory farms were treating pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal like inanimate production units, rather than thinking, feeling animals – confining them in enclosures so small that they were unable to lie down, turn around or fully extend their limbs, 24 hours a day seven days a week, for almost their entire lives.
    The Arizona ballot measure passed by a landslide, but that was just the beginning. As beneficial changes for farm animals sweep across the country, the industrial agriculture industry is finally recognizing that consumers feel strongly about the humane treatment of farm animals.  Thanks to HSUS for its unique collaboration with industries to make life better for farm animals. 

  9. This is just so horrific that I will never again buy pork products from Tyson and be sure to let every single person I know to not support Tyson. Thank you for shedding light on this important issue and educating us about the importance of our food choices. 

  10. The NPCC’s attitude is utterly cold and callous toward even the most basic needs of animals. An apology by their CEO would be meaningful only if they now get behind the movement against gestation crates. Until then, NPCC looks like a foolish body stubbornly and ineptly defending business practices that consumers and retailers have already decided is behind the times.

  11. The pork producers and cattlemen’s association only want to protect their infrastructure and profits. They don’t care about the animals.  The egg producers tried to pass legislation with the HSUS, but it was blocked by both the pork and cattle organizations.  It’s time to walk with your dollars, people. Buy humanely produced protein sources.  Do your homework for the animals.

  12. Great points, Josh Balk. I agree that we’re entering a hopeful time in the evolution of our food system. More and more people are becoming educated on the cruelties of the factory farming industry and companies like Tyson will soon find themselves losing out if they go against the smart shift towards more humane farming methods.

  13. Gestation crates are becoming a thing of the past, and one day everyone will be horrified that they were ever used.

  14. In the not-so-distant future, we are going to look back in disbelief that such a cruel confinement system as gestation crates was ever used at all in raising animals. Americans do not want animals to suffer, and companies who are cutting ties with producers using such systems are rightfully responding to this consumer sentiment. Time to change, Tyson.

  15. Incredible progress has been made and the era of gestation crates is seeing an end. Animals suffer and I’m proud of the companies that take a stand against practices that are such out right cruel displays of animal torture by the agriculture businesses. The NPPC and Tyson’s have nothing with which to justify gestation crates.

  16. With the great work you’re doing, Josh, hopefully the American public will demand better treatment of all food source animals….for the sake of compassion and also for public health.  Making the public aware of the misery and torture that is involved in every bite of meat that is eaten is the way to go.  Meatless Monday is a marvelous idea.   I’m so glad it’s spreading.  

  17. In agreement with everyone saying gestation crates are a thing of the past. It really disturbs me that they are still used, but I’m heartened by the idea that consumers are starting to become informed and demand humane (or at least, humaner) treatment of the animals they consume. Great article.

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