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.