No one knows what the future will bring, but in the case of growing pressures placed on gestation-sow stalls, you do have a crystal ball. Whether you look to the U.S. egg producers or to Europe’s pork producers, there are many insights to what you will face.

While most of the country was aching for rain this summer, there was a steady drip, drip, drip of food companies announcing plans to ban gestation stalls from their pork supplies. Beginning last December, not a month has passed without another food company stepping forward with a plan or a request for their pork suppliers to move toward gestation-stall-free products.

While this first began in 2002 with Chipotle’s announcement, followed by Whole Foods the next year, most ag folks thought, “OK, that’s a niche market. It will never gain real traction.”  Four years later, Wolfgang Puck joined the list — not a big surprise or concern there. However, Smithfield Foods actually kicked off 2007 with an announcement that it would start replacing gestation stalls in its own facilities, with a 2017 completion date. It would ask its contract growers to do the same. Canada’s Maple Leaf Foods followed with the same deadline for its company-owned production units. Hmmm — those last two are a bit different.

Cargill also stepped forward with a commitment in 2007 and, by 2009, the company announced that 50 percent of its contract farms had adopted group sow housing. “Achieving this objective distinguishes us as a leader among pork companies,” a company press release stated.

Things quieted down for a while in 2008 as the U.S. pork sector faced a flood of red ink, followed in 2009 by the Novel H1N1 influenza virus debacle. Smithfield pulled back on its sow-housing conversion plans, citing economic reasons.

Fast forward to 2011, when the Humane Society of the United States — the mastermind behind this and many other challenges against animal agriculture — reignited its methodical attack on gestation stalls. As a Smithfield stockholder, HSUS pressured the company to get back on track with its stall-elimination plan, and the company recommitted to its 2017 deadline. Hormel was next on HSUS’ list; and so began the steady drip, drip, drip of food companies — McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Safeway, Kroger, Oscar Mayer, Sysco — 26 in all, so far.

Ironically, Domino’s Pizza is not among those that have fallen like, well, dominos. Tyson Foods has held off as well. The most recent attack, which Mercy for Animals (an apparent cozy comrade of HSUS) initiated against Wal-Mart, has not generated a response. Meanwhile, Costco folded in anticipation of the exact same campaign.

All of this is aside from HSUS’ state referendums and other tactics that have produced nine states with gestation-stall bans on the books. Such state actions are expensive and harder sell to the public once you venture deeper into animal-ag country. It certainly would be a harder sell with drought-stricken food prices headed higher.

Besides, it really is easier and more effective to mess with a company’s brand or market share. After all, that’s a company’s Achilles heel. In reality, consumers are not clamoring for a change to sow (or hen) housing on farms. Rather, it is HSUS methodically chipping away at an animal production sector, and it has the manpower and money to wait it out. Just ask the United Egg Producers. There is no grand love affair between UEP and HSUS in presenting federal legislation on housing and welfare standards for egg-laying hens. These two groups had been fighting bitterly for years. The bill is UEP’s attempt at sanity and survival — albeit naïve.  

We all know it won’t stop there. Look to Europe to see what’s next. (Check out page 20.) At home, Burger King has already said its goal is eggs without cages of any kind, and that would include the HSUS/UEP- agreed-upon “enriched colony housing.” Under the agreement with UEP, HSUS pledges it will not conduct undercover videos. However, that doesn’t include producers who may not be wholeheartedly on board. That was the case for Kreider Farms in Pennsylvania where, following an April video release, three independent entities inspected the operations and determined the farm met industry best practices. Also, the HSUS agreement won’t stop MFA or any other activist group from seeking undercover access to farms.

As I write this, a U.S. Senate committee is conducting a hearing on S. 3239 (the egg bill). It was denied inclusion into the 2012 Farm Bill in both houses, so it will have to move forward on its own. The House farm bill includes an amendment that prevents one state from requiring producers in other states to meet specific production standards in order to sell product within its borders. Think California’s Proposition 2. The argument is that the federal commerce clause and interstate regulations already address such transactions.  Of course, it has to survive the conference committee and the drawn-out farm bill process. That means you need to contact your representatives and make it crystal clear that you support Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) amendment, as well as where you stand on the federal government regulating farm-animal housing.

You do have a crystal ball providing insight into what you face. Two years are dominating the deadlines for gestation stalls — 2017 and 2022. Beyond that, you need to get ahead of the next target, because there will be a next target.