Gestation crates: Not exactly hog heaven

pig_gestation_crates1Lately, I’ve been thinking about animal welfare. That’s partly that’s because I met Josh Balk of the Humane Society of the United States at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference in May. Josh’s title is Director of Corporate Policy, Farm Animal Protection, at HSUS; his job is to work with big companies to get them to treat animals better.

Among other things, they are trying to get the pork industry to end the practice of confining m0ther pigs in gestation crates for most or all of their lives. These crates are designed so that the pig cannot turn around; their use has been compared to asking one of us to spend our lives in an airline seat.

Their battle with pig farmers is the topic of my story this week in Guardian Sustainable Business, headlined Why the US pork industry wants to shut down the debate over pig crates. Here’s how it begins:

Don’t try to convince the American pork industry that the customer is always right. Thousands of hog farmers and one of the industry’s big producers, Tyson Foods, want retailers, brands and supermarket shoppers to mind their own business and stop telling farmers how to raise pigs.

The issue? Gestation crates that confine mother pigs into metal enclosures so tightly that they cannot even turn around. The pork industry raises most sows in gestation crates, and says they do no harm.

But in the last year or so, about 40 companies – including fast-food chains McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King and Wendy’s, supermarkets Costco, Target and Albertson’s, food-service firms Compass Group, Sodexo and Aramark, and brands including Hillshire, which makes Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park Franks, and Kraft, which makes Oscar Mayer – have said that they will require their suppliers to eliminate the use of gestation crates by a certain date.

The industry is resisting, saying there’s no scientific basis to get rid of the crates. Dave Warner of the National Pork Producers Council told me that activist groups like HSUS have wrongly put pressure on the retailers and brands.

“It is very disconcerting that retailers, in making decisions about sourcing pork products, continue to succumb to the pressure of activist groups such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) without any consideration of the impact on American farm families,” Warner said. He told me: “Farmers should have a choice about how they raise their animals. They do this work because they love working with the animals. We don’t go telling other people how to run their business.” Eliminating gestation crates, he warns, will mean consumers will pay more for bacon, sausage and hot dogs.

I don’t think the pig farmers are going to win the battle. Gestation crates are not necessary: America’s biggest pork producer, Smithfield Farms, has said it will phase them out from its company-owned farms, which account for more than half of its production, by 2017. Chipotle and Whole Foods Markets eliminated gestation crates from their supply chains a decade ago.

Josh Balk
Josh Balk

Interestingly, Josh told me that persuading brand, retailers and voters to oppose gestation crates is relatively easy – all it takes is showing them how mother pigs are confined. “We don’t need to convince anyone of anything,” Balk told me. “We just have to show them what’s going on.”

The trouble is, most of us don’t want to know what’s going on.

Part of the job of advocacy groups like HSUS, PETA and Farm Sanctuary is to bring animal agriculture practices to light. Josh once went undercover at a plant in Maryland where chickens are killed. “Chickens are probably the most abused of all animals,” he told me. “It’s not even close.” Was he worried about getting exposed, as as college-educated, suburban-raised white man working among mostly poor immigrants, I asked. He acknowledged that he didn’t discloses much about his past. “I made sure not to talk about my bar mitzvah,” he joked.

The interesting question about all this is what it means, in the long run, for the meat industry. If HSUS and other groups succeed in bringing more humane practices to the industry, prices for pork, chicken and beef likely will rise. Meantime, health concerns about eating red meat are rising, and environmental groups point to the negative impacts of factory farms. Startup companies like Beyond Meat  and Hampton Creek Foods are developing plant-based proteins that look, taste and feel like meat. Can we imagine a future when people, at least in the developed world, eat less and less meat? Beef consumption has fallen slightly in recent years, mostly because of health concerns, but beef, chicken and pork consumption are all much higher today than they were a few decades ago.

You can read the rest of my story here.

Photo credit: Farm Sanctuary


  1. Maureen Williams says

    What you missed at least in this excerpt is that meat consumption is going up in emerging markets (Brazil & China in particular) as these countries develop a higher middle class so this actually off sets the decrease of meat consumption in the developed countries.

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