During the past few years the pork production sector has focused on productivity, efficiency and controlling rising costs in an increasingly competitive and low-margin climate. It has paid off on many levels. Pigs per litter have increased 2 percent annually for the past four years. Hogs grow faster and reach heavier market weights sooner. More producers have hit or are closing in on raising 30 pigs per sow per year.  Today, more than one in four hogs is sold through export market channels.

Raising hogs is tough work; there are challenges around every corner.  But as you have focused on the production side of your business, the product side may have paid a price. Meanwhile others have focused on your business, with an emphasis on your customers — food companies, restaurants and consumers.

I’m talking about the ongoing campaign against gestation-sow stalls that started in late January and has continued with a steady flow of accusations, announcements and ultimatums. Smithfield, Cargill and Hormel have all agreed to stall-free housing for their own production. McDonald’s, which buys an estimated 250 million pounds of pork annually, gave its suppliers a May deadline to outline their plans to eliminate gestation stalls. Now, add Burger King, Wendy’s, Safeway, Winn Dixie, Quiznos, Red Robin, Subway, Bon Appetit Management Company, Compass Group and Tim Hortons to the list. So far Seaboard Foods and Tyson Foods have held off, and perhaps most notably, Domino’s Pizza has said “no” to stall-free sow-housing mandates.  

Still, the score adds up to a lot of restless customers. Remember, just as your business is raising hogs to produce pork for the food system, the food company’s business is to protect and promote its brand and its sales.

Pork producers are fuming — and rightly so — but the general response has been concerning. The pork sector has long led the pack in terms of its progressive nature, moving from being a hog farmer to a pork producer and then on to embrace a deeper recognition that you are a critical link in the food chain. You made hogs leaner to meet changing demand. You’ve adopted biosecurity and herd health protocols and have cut antibiotics use. Today you produce a higher quality product more consistently. Granted, it seems that you get more criticism than praise for your efforts, but I don’t hear the same advanced conversation developing this time.

Today’s response is more aligned with: “At most, 10 percent of U.S. sows are housed in groups. There’s not that kind of segregation in the supply chain. So where do they think they’ll get their pork products?”

 I’m not saying you should throw up your hands and give in, but a thoughtful dialogue is not evolving. I’ve even heard of scathing encounters between producers who house gestating sows in groups, or plan to, and producers who prefer stalls. That type of division is exactly where the activists want you.

This is not a time for a standoff between fellow producers or your customers. This is a time for measured thought and dialogue. How can you approach any of those food companies with a new product or project in the future if you don’t consider their concerns today? With 50 percent of today’s meals being consumed away from home, is that a risk the pork sector can afford?     

Science will not be enough. For one thing, consumers don’t care; they don’t have the time or patience for the explanation. More importantly, while science shows that simply moving sows into groups or providing them more space does not improve welfare, it also shows that both stall and group systems perform equally well. We all know that animal well-being and performance are dependent on the management.

So, through consumers’ eyes, the questions then evolve to “Why don’t you embrace management that would accommodate group housing? Are you unable? Do you not care? Is it due to cost?”

When a released statement says “pork producers abhor such mistreatment of animals,” yet the public sees a video that appears otherwise, it rings hollow. 

Time and again, in numerous surveys the vast majority of consumers have said that they’re not looking to become vegetarians, but they want to be assured that farm animals are well treated.

U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance recently completed a survey involving 1,400 consumers, who are responsible for making food decisions and purchases, as well as food professionals. Of those surveyed, 58 percent said they frequently think about how the food they eat is grown or raised — and 71 percent said they have serious or some concern about the methods conventional agriculture uses.  Nearly one-quarter said they worry about the treatment of animals. Participants indicated that when they see images of farmers and farm families they tend to associate them with organic or local food, whether that’s the reality or not.

The pork sector is focusing on the activists, but the focus needs to be on your customer and the consumer. You care about the freedom to choose and to run your business on your terms. Food companies care about their brands, image and sales. Consumers care about safe, wholesome, nutritious food and, specific to meat, that the animals are treated well. You want all of them to understand you, but you need to work just as hard at understanding them, and you can never forget that you are part of the food chain.