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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

What Is Driving the Shift Away From Sow Gestation Crates?

On 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

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshotGina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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