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. [click to continue...]

Why I’m (still) an optimist

Happy New Year! And good riddance to 2011, a year during which we made little or no progress on some of the issues that I care most about: climate change, the long-term federal debt, social mobility (aka the American dream), and our dysfunctional Congress. Yet I remain an optimist.

Texas drought 2011

I could write many words about our woes. Instead, I’ll try to be succinct. On the climate issue, global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record in 2010, we learned recently, and 2011 surely brought further increases.  Concentrations of CO2 are 39% above where they were at the start of the industrial era and approaching the point when some scientists say it will be nearly impossible to contain global warming, the Guardian reports. Neither the US nor the UN moved closer to regulating CO2. In a discouraging development, Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich backed away from their once-sensible support of greenhouse gas regulation, in what can only be seen as shameless pandering to the know-nothing wing of the Republican Party. Discouraging, too, was the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which will slow down the growth of carbon-free nuclear power. So will the failure of Solyndra. Meanwhile, the U.S. suffered massive flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, a terrible drought in Texas, record wildfires and at least 2,941 monthly weather records that were broken by extreme events, according to the NRDC.. Coincidence? Uh, no.

Like the atmospheric concentrations of CO2, the federal budget deficit has been growing.That’s no coincidence either. We’re living beyond our means, whether by burning fossil fuels or taxpayer dollars, and sticking future generations with the cleanup bill. Just last week, the White House asked for a $1.2 trillion increase in the federal debt limit, raising it to about $16.4 trillion. According to Marketplace Radio, that amounts to about $52,000 for every American. For a typical  family of four, that’s bigger than the mortgage. [click to continue...]

Smithfield Foods: Sustainable pork?

Unless you avoid pork for religious reasons, you’ve probably eaten pork products from Smithfield Foods: the bacon or sausage in a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, Armour-Eckrich bologna or ham, pork from Bob Evans or Jimmy Dean’s, an Esskay hot dog at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, and quite likely your Easter ham.

Smithfield is a pork giant. It has 49 factories, 500 or so hog farms, 48,000 employees and about $11 billion in revenues in FY2010. It slaughtered about 27 million animals last year in the U.S. “We’re the largest pork producer in the world, by a long shot,” says Dennis Treacy, the company’s chief sustainability officer.

Yes, Smithfield has a chief sustainability officer–and that may surprise you if you remember reading horror stories about Smithfield’s confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s), its problems managing pig manure, its labor conflicts or animal welfare  issues in places like The New York Times and Rolling Stone. The company was featured–not in a flattering way–in the movie Food Inc. and sued by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and the Waterkeeper Alliance.

Dennis Treacy

Treacy had problems with Smithfield, too, before joining the company. In fact, Treacy, who was the director of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for the state of Virginia from 1998 to 2002 under Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, once sued Smithfield for polluting the state’s waters.  (You could look it up.) In 1997, Smithfield was fined $12 million, one of the largest fines at the time, for violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

Now, though, Treacy says Smithfield has cleaned up not just the water but its own act. He’s been with the company for nine years, and says he was hired to make the company more sustainable and improve its reputation. “We have slowly but surely built a sustainability program,” he says. “It’s the right thing to do, and everybody wants to work for a company that is respected.”

I met Dennis earlier this week in Washington. He seems like a good guy, and he’s spent his career on environmental issues–he studied fisheries and wildlife at Virginia Tech, got a law degree from Lewis and Clark in Oregon, which is a top environmental law school, and he lives on a small farm near Richmond where he and his wife raise chickens and rabbits. [click to continue...]