Begging Walmart for Pig Mercy: Will Activist Stunt Save Swine?

Mercy For Animals is calling on the retail giant to stop using gestation crates. It's better for the animals—and for flavor too.

Julia, no longer stuck on a factory farm, breathes fresh air and tromps in the dirt at a rescue facility in New York. (Photo: Mercy For Animals)
Megan is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

Mike Duke probably expected to receive a few gift cards for his birthday on December 7. The Walmart CEO might have expected a basket of fruit or chocolates, perhaps some calls from friends and family.

He probably wasn’t expecting a pig.

But that’s just the gift he received from the animal-rights organization Mercy For Animals (MFA).

MFA sponsored the rescue of Julia, a one-time factory-farm pig who is now living at a New York sanctuary for farm animals, in Duke’s name. A card sent to Duke by MFA's executive director, Nathan Runkle, cleared up any lingering confusion the CEO might have about his unusual present: “I hope this birthday present inspires you to give a gift in return: a better life to the pigs who currently suffer lives of constant misery at Walmart pork suppliers," it reads.

Mercy For Animals has been lobbying Walmart for months to stop sourcing pork from farms that use gestation crates. The crates, which restrict pregnant pigs from turning around or sitting down comfortably, are banned in nine U.S. states and throughout the European Union. Though McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Chipotle, Safeway, Target, and Costco have all begun eliminating gestation crates from their supply chains, Walmart lags behind.

Matt Rice, Director of Investigations at Mercy for Animals, tells TakePart that this isn’t just an issue concerning animal-rights activists. “Most people agree that even if animals are raised and killed for food they shouldn’t be tortured in the process,” he says.

Even if you're unconcered with animal-rights issues as they relate to the meat, if you're going to eat a pork chop for dinner, you probably want it to taste good—and methods of animal husbandry, like eliminating the use of gestation crates, factor into flavor. 

“It's true that the best-raised animals make better meat,” Tom Gatherer of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, once told the Guardian

Eli Gjerlaug-Enger, an animal husbandry researcher at the cooperative for Norwegian pork producers, Norsvin, works to eliminate stress throughout the the life of a farm animal. “The animals that yield prime meat quality are the ones that have not been subjected to stress,” she told Science Nordic, who reported that stress can include inactivity for animals, which is true of gestation crates. “Stress alters protein composition, vitamin content and minerals.”

In Denmark, where progress toward humane animal husbandry is leaps ahead of American standards, research supports Gjerlaug-Enger's findings on stress.

"We have found certain components that change when the muscle cells are exposed to heat or oxygen deprivation,” Ida Krestine Straadt, of the Department of Food Science, Aarhus University in Denmark, told the country's Agriculture and Food Council.

In 2011, Straadt conducted studies in which she cultivated muscles cells and then subjected them to lab conditions that mimicked the stress pigs might feel en route to or prior to slaughter. Heat stress, for example, results in oxygen deprivation. Straadt found that amino acids decreased when muscle tissue was stressed while lactic acid levels went up; both could be indicators of stress. “The findings in my studies match those of other research in our department into pigs exposed to stress,” she said. “Higher levels of lactic acid produce a higher drip loss, which is related to less juicy meat.”

So there you have it: Whether it’s a juicy pork chop you’re after or a more humane food system, stressful methods have got to go. "While this modest, but meaningful, improvement in animal welfare won't end all of the violence and cruelty pigs raised and killed for food are forced to endure, it is an important step in the right direction," says Rice of MFA's request. 

If Duke isn't ready to commit to improving Walmart's practices, he’d better hope his customers don’t get a taste of pork from a humane farm. 

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