Pork Farmers to Let Pregnant Pigs out of Confinement Crates

Hundreds of thousands of pigs are still being kept in crates that don't let them move around.

Pork Farmers to Let Pregnant Pigs out of Confinement Crates

Most hogs raised by American pig farmers, such as this animal on the Kellogg farm outside Chicago, are kept in metal crates for much of their adult lives. Photographed June 4, 2001, in Yorkville, Ill. (Photo: Marc Kaufman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

It’s been a stellar week for American hogs.

The world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc. issued a recommendation this week asking all of its contract hog producers to convert their operations from gestation crates—which prohibit a mother sow from turning around—to group housing stalls, which are considered more humane.

The request is voluntary, but Smithfield has put incentives in place to encourage producers to make the change.

The move is significant: Although more than half of the company-owned farms have already moved from gestation crates to group housing, 40 percent of Smithfield sows are raised by farmers still using gestation crates, for the most part.

When you're counting all those little piggies, the numbers add up: Smithfield raised nearly 900,000 sows in 2013, and it brings 15.8 million hogs to market each year.

“If growers choose not to participate, their current contracts with Murphy-Brown [Smithfield’s hog production subsidiary] will remain unchanged, although extensions are less likely,” the company said in its announcement on Tuesday.

The following day, Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. sent a letter to its pork producers urging a number of changes that would make the treatment of their animals more humane. Tyson is calling for video monitoring of the farms, providing pain mitigation for tail docking and castration of piglets, and ending the use of “manual blunt force as the primary method of euthanizing sick and injured piglets.”

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."—Mahatma Gandhi

And in a 180-degree shift from its long-standing support for use of gestation crates, Tyson called for improved housing for its 60,000 sows

Josh Balk, director of food policy for Humane Society of the United States, says Smithfield deserves credit for leading on an issue such as gestation crates.

“What Smithfield is showing is that it’s economically feasible for producers to move in this direction,” says Balk.

Indeed, much of the pork industry’s resistance was tied to the costs involved in converting farms, despite several studies showing that alternatives to gestation crates produced more live piglets per litter, and that costs to remove gestation crates and retrofit group pens would increase prices only 2 to 5 percent.

Since 2002, laws have been passed in nine states—including Florida, Arizona, and California—to ban or phase out gestation crates used in pork production.

A little customer pressure didn't hurt either. Dozens of companies, including Burger King, Oscar Mayer, Safeway, Denny’s, Applebee’s, McDonald’s, and Target, have pledged to remove suppliers who use gestation crates from their supply chain. That, in turn, has put pressure on the pork industry.

“To date, more than 50 companies—many of them Smithfield customers—have announced that they will source pork in the future from suppliers utilizing group housing,” said Dennis H. Treacy, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer of Smithfield Foods.

Dave Warner, spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council, says it is not commenting on the Smithfield or Tyson decisions.

“We estimate that 10 percent of the 5.8 million sows in this country are in housing systems other than a gestation stall, but even the majority of that 10 percent are in a stall for some period of time,” says Warner.  

The council's continued support for using gestation stalls comes from supporting farmers who say they work best for their operation and "the well-being of the sow," Warner says.

“Is it a victory for the Humane Society? You have to define what winning is. Is winning getting sows out of the gestation stalls? Because their goal is to reduce the consumption of meat in this country,” he says.

However winning is defined, this week’s announcements by giants Smithfield and Tyson seem to mark the beginning of the end for the gestation crate, advocates say.

“But it also shows how terrible the pork industry’s record was on animal welfare when it’s considered a significant change just to allow mother pigs to turn around,” HSUS's Balk says.

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