Pork Producers Must Have ‘Rocks in Their Heads’ to Use Sow Crates

By Paul ShapiroGestation crates 11-26-10

“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]

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11 responses

  1. Rocks in their heads. Dollar signs in their eyes. Coldness in their hearts.

    Refusing to support routine farm animal abuse–like gestation crate cruelty–is the least that we can do. Thanks to all who are making responsible food choices, and to all those fighting for a humane food system.

  2. It’s fascinating that some companies can’t see the obvious—the tide of their business culture is tuning in to what consumers actually want, and that doesn’t include gestation crates.

  3. Thanks for bringing this difficult issue up. While technically “Smithfield, Cargill and Hormel also are publicly moving away from this particularly inhumane practice”, what they don’t mention is that they are only talking about their Directly OWNED and OPERATED facilities, not the ones they sub-contract to. From my research, Smithfield, Cargill and Hormel only directly own and product 5%-10% of their own pork, so 90% or more of the pork out there are from smaller suppliers, not on anyone’s radar, and will still use these gestation crates unfortunately. Most of the points of this article are greenwash at its best, that the author bought into. The fight is far from over!

    1. Oren, you bring up some interesting points, but I’ll bet you dollars to navy beans that Paul already knows all about everything you spoke of, and much more besides. He doesn’t “buy into” anything put out by the meat industry. On the contrary, he’s an expert on the subject

    2. Thanks for your message, Oren. You’re certainly right that there are real concerns about contractors, but it’s important to keep in mind that Smithfield (by far the biggest producer in the country) owns the majority of the sow farms it uses. (Perhaps other companies have a smaller percentage as you suggest, but not them.) However, importantly, more than 50 major pork buyers (eg, McDonald’s, Burger King, etc.) have announced policies to eliminate all gestation crate pork from their supply chains, regardless of the contractor issue. As well, the laws we’re passing in numerous states banning gestation crates also apply to all facilities, regardless of ownership. I do of course agree with you that the fight is far from over. The animal movement has made impressive strides lately on this issue, but there’s still a painfully long way to go.

  4. Great post. It’s so encouraging to hear that every major retailer is moving away from this cruelty, but frustrating that Tyson refuses to see the writing on the wall. Hopefully as more and more consumers speak up against this horrific abuse, gestation crates will soon become a thing of the past.

  5. Companies that fail to adapt to the increasing consumer demand for humanely
    produced food, and instead hide behind shaky industry defenses (that are fast
    going by the wayside), have a dim future.
    Good article.

  6. Great article. Thank you for this. Even if they don’t care about animals, if corporations choose to listen to their cynical PR firms rather than the will of the people, they will surely lose profits.

  7. Great article. It’s heartening to see more and more companies ditching the gestation crate, though shocking to see Tyson holding on this antiquated relic of the past. Thanks for all the work you do to bring about better conditions for farm animals. This work is very important.

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