Animal activists were busy last month as they fixed their crosshairs on the pork industry — specifically gestation-sow stalls. Now, gestation housing is not new to their list of targets, but with the United Egg Producers joining the Humane Society of the United States on federal housing standards for laying hens, gestation stalls have moved up.

The first round actually came in late 2011 when, as a company stockholder, HSUS filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that Smithfield was misleading the public with its new video series, “Taking the Mystery Out of Pork Production.” It also filed a request to review Smithfield’s records, which was denied. At issue was HSUS’ claim that Smithfield had reneged on its goal to stop using gestation-sow stalls by 2017.

Dennis Treacy, Smithfield’s executive vice president of corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer, acknowledged that while the industry’s economic downturn, beginning back in 2007, slowed the transition, things were back on track. In fact, 30 percent of the company’s gestation-sow housing had been converted to groups by late 2011. He said the company will spend more than $300 million to meet the 2017 goal.

HSUS flagged Smithfield’s connection to McDonald’s as a way to ramp up the pressure. McDonald’s did acknowledge in a statement, “Smithfield Foods was the first major pork producer that committed to phasing out gestation stalls, and we support the company’s transparency and progress toward this goal.”

The more recent activities began on Jan. 31, as HSUS released undercover videos taken at separate Seaboard Foods’ and Prestage Farms’ sow units near Goodwell, Okla. Shot late in 2011, HSUS charged that the video revealed inhumane treatment of pigs and concentrated on gestation stalls and baby-pig processing techniques.

Again, the video release and news conference included targeting Wal-Mart, as Seaboard is among its pork suppliers. Companies protect brands at nearly all costs, as their priority is to keep customers satisfied and committed.

“They (HSUS) are looking to expose brand hypocrisy,” says Wes Jamison, a professor at Palm Beach University, who’s followed the animal-rights movement for 20+ years. He explains that brand hypocrisy is “the violation of core consumer values and expectations attached to a brand.”

He adds, “They’re looking for the weakest link, exposing something that may not in reality even be a bad act; it just looks bad.”

Less than a week later, HSUS attended Hormel Foods’ and Tyson Foods’ annual meetings.  As a stockholder in each company, HSUS was set to challenge the pork producer/packer to stop using gestation-sow stalls. 

 Jeff Ettinger, Hormel Foods president and chief executive officer, told attendees the company started the sow-housing transition in 2010 and would stop using gestation-sow stalls by 2017. The action will involve 54,000 breeding pigs and company units in three states — Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming. Two of those states are set to eliminate gestation-sow stalls — Arizona by 2012 and Colorado by 2017.

Not included in Hormel’s decision are the practices of independent pork producers from which it buys hogs.  HSUS wants to see the action expanded. Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and chief executive officer, said, “We urge the company to apply it (gestation housing policy) to any contract pig breeders it may use.”

Moving on to Springdale, Ark., HSUS challenged Tyson’s gestation-sow housing plans. Tyson downsized its hog production sector significantly in recent years and The Pork Group (a wholly owned subsidiary), with 50,000 sows, produces hogs and pigs, which it sells throughout the country. Tyson Foods’ ownership of live-hog operations is less than 1 percent of its total pork production, purchasing the rest from independent producers, according to the company.

Again, HSUS wants Tyson to apply the no-gestation-stall standard to all producers supplying market hogs to its packing plants.

The next target was a Hawkeye Sow Centers swine-breeding facility near Leland, Iowa. HSC is part of Kerber Companies, which includes several animal-ag divisions, including seven shareholder-owned sow farms, and 180,000 finishing spaces.

The animal-rights group, Compassion Over Killing, released a video, which was shot in December 2011, as a COK investigator worked at the facility for three weeks. The video concentrated on baby-pig processing, castrating piglets without anesthesia, gestation-sow stalls as well as farrowing crates, among other procedures.

The industry consensus is summed up by Harry Snelson, DVM, American Association of Swine Veterinarians’ communications director: “I don’t see any evidence of willful abuse of the animals in the video. Contrary to the assertions of the (video) narrator, it was evident that the farm employee had been trained, recognized the injuries and attempted to treat those injuries.”

COK pointed to Hormel Foods as purchasing hogs from facilities raising pigs from HSC sows. “As our investigator was told, many of the piglets born at this facility will end up on store shelves under the brand name Hormel,” said COK executive director Erica Meier.

She challenged Hormel to extend its own gestation-sow stall policy to “independently run facilities” that supply its hogs.

Hormel told PORK, “Hormel Foods…has a zero-tolerance policy for the inhumane treatment of animals, and we remain dedicated to the highest standards for animal care and handling. We continue to be in discussions with our suppliers to ensure day-to-day actions are consistent with industry standards.” 

In the waning days of February, McDonald’s Corp. stepped forward, calling on its U.S. pork suppliers to stop using gestation-sow stalls. The company said it will study suppliers’ options and will require them, by May, to outline plans to phase out the stalls.

“We expect this to have a catalytic effect, for both foodservice (restaurants) and retail outlets,” Pacelle says. In addition, he says that McDonald’s recent move “makes it clear that there’s no future for gestation crates in the pork industry.”

“McDonald’s wants to see the end of sow confinement in gestation stalls in our supply chain,” says Dan Gorsky, senior vice president of McDonald’s North America supply chain management. “There are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows.”

Lastly, Bon Appétit Management Co., which operates more than 400 foodservice outlets in 31 states, said it will focus on suppliers whose products do not trace back to gestation-sow stalls. With a phase-in plan by 2015, it vows that 25 percent or more of its meat, poultry and egg purchases companywide will come from producers who meet at least one of four certification programs: Animal Welfare Approved, Food Alliance, Humane Farm Animal Care or Global Animal Partnership.

Other brands such as Burger King, Wendy’s, Sonic, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Quiznos and Safeway have taken steps to increase product purchases from suppliers who don’t use gestation stalls. Other companies — like Whole Foods, Wolfgang Puck and Chipotle — say they already do not use any pork produced using gestation crates.