The issue surrounding animal welfare and gestation-sow stalls has been smoldering for years, really as far back as the 1980s. For the past 20 years the activists have placed sow housing among their top three priorities. Veal producers have made housing adjustments, and most recently the United Egg Producers joined with the Humane Society of the United States to pursue federal legislation outlining housing specifications for laying hens. Like it or not, that’s UEP’s decision. That now pulls gestation stalls into the No. 1 spot.

The past six weeks or so has brought a flurry of activity and negative attention to the pork industry. (See “You are the Next Target” on page 14.)  Now, you can trot out arguments citing experience, logic, scientific reasoning, even a commitment to provide safe, nutritious, affordable food to your fellow man, but on the issue of gestation-sow stalls, at least, it’s increasingly apparent that you will lose the battle.

I’ve visited with several people recently — an animal scientist, association personnel, media and marketing specialists, consultants to food retailers and, yes, even an HSUS staffer. A few common threads have surfaced.

While the pork industry has addressed the potential activist assault on gestation stalls by conducting scientific research and looking for answers to sow housing, there also has been a heavy dose of disbelief. “We aren’t really going to have to change; science will win out; we know what’s best; the activists are a bunch of crazies.” Any one of those has been an all too common response.  “We don’t have to take this seriously; the issue will burn itself out.” Meanwhile eight states have addressed gestation-sow stalls either voluntarily or by mandated measures.

Some food companies stepped forward a few years ago — Whole Foods, Chipotle and Wolfgang Puck — saying they won’t buy from suppliers whose product can be traced back to gestation-sow stalls. “Okay, but that’s a niche market and it won’t expand beyond that. Besides, food companies will never find enough pork to fill their needs,” the thought process continues. 

Now that’s changing too. In recent weeks, Hormel Foods and Smithfield Foods have both recommitted to stop using gestation-sow stalls by 2017. McDonald’s is giving its suppliers until May to report back with a plan to address housing options. Tyson Foods, Seaboard Foods, Prestage Farms, Wal-Mart and Hawkeye Sow Centers were all targeted in February. I know you’re not naïve enough to think it will stop there.

The activists are focusing on food companies and brands, and that’s a game-changer. Some of them have tasted what it’s like to defend their brands against practices that consumers increasingly don’t understand and are questioning. We tend to view Smithfield as a pork producer and packer, but it’s also a brand; same with Hormel and Tyson. It’s their name on the line. It takes a company too much time and money to build a brand to let another entity damage it.

“We are now on a slippery slope,” one scientist told me. For gestation stalls, the productivity argument doesn’t hold up; well-managed group systems perform just as well, he points out. Will making a change require significant adjustments? Yes. Increase costs? Yes. Will there be growing pains? Yes. But is it doable? Yes. Will it seem like you’ve given in? That cannot be what this is about.

It’s about the customer — food companies — even more than the consumer. “Why wouldn’t you accommodate your customer?” more than one of my sources responded.  It’s also about your product and a changing baseline. No product is guaranteed status quo — not even meat.

Pork producers long ago embraced the fact that they didn’t just produce hogs, but food. In the 1980s when it became clear the animal needed to change to provide a leaner, more healthful product, you responded. Sure, there were some financial incentives tied to that effort, but today’s marketplace and this issue are different.

You cannot argue away the point that hogs are living beings, and people have a strong association with animals. The issue with gestation-sow stalls is space. Consumers are generally okay with farrowing stalls because they protect baby pigs, but gestation stalls seem extreme.  It’s too small a space for too long a time, and it propagates a stall-to-stall-to-stall cycle that is hard to swallow.  

Never mind that the undercover videos increasingly do not show abuse but, rather, “standard industry practices.” Pay attention to that now, as activists are starting to say “look at these awful images — these are standard industry practices.”

Today’s customer or consumer doesn’t know how to fill in the accurate details, and there’s a vast difference between reality and perception.  We like to think that we can educate consumers on the production details and build their understanding. But they don’t really want to know; they want to feel okay about eating meat.  

Food companies will not risk association with what consumers perceive to be questionable practices. Pork producers need to step up their pace in considering consumers’ perceptions and addressing on-farm practices proactively. The pork sector needs to have serious conversations and develop strategies about which practices you can change and which ones you can live without. (Baby-pig processing is next on the activists’ list — or mutilations, as they like to call it.)

It may have taken 20 years for gestation-sow stalls to get to this point. The next challenge will move on a much faster track. The harsh reality is, you can direct these decisions or others will do it for you.