Editor’s note: R.C. Hunt is president and co-owner of Andrews Hunt Farms in Bailey, N.C., and the president of the National Pork Producers Council.
Italian physicist Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Catholic Church in 1616 for proffering the theory that the Earth revolved around the sun. Nearly all of humanity at the time believed it was the other way around.
Like many issues before and since, though, simply because a majority believes it — just because it’s popular— doesn’t make it right or true.
But that is exactly what’s happening with the issue of gestation-sow stalls. Proponents of banning them — led by the Humane Society of the United States — are applying argumentum ad numerum (appeal to the number), a fallacious argument that concludes a proposition to be true because many or most people believe it.
Actually, with gestation stalls, there is no evidence that a majority of the populace supports their prohibition. But HSUS is doing its damnedest to convince people that individual sow housing is inhumane. Earlier this year, it released “undercover” video of two Oklahoma hog operations, claiming the sows in gestation stalls were suffering. They were not. A co-conspirator — Mercy for Animals — then made public a video that showed workers on a Wyoming operation abusing pigs — actions that immediately were condemned by the National Pork Producers Council and the National Pork Board — and connected the abuse to the fact that sows were housed in stalls. It was not.
Throughout this year, the animal-rights group has coerced a number of food companies to proclaim that they want their pork suppliers to be gestation-stall free.
But the available supply of pork from housing systems other than stalls does not match the company pronouncements. Indeed, of the 5.74 million sows in the United States, only 17.3 percent were housed in open pens, according to a June survey by University of Missouri agricultural economist Ron Plain, and even the majority of those also spent some time in a gestation stall.
More importantly, the more than 110 million market hogs from sows are weaned and finished in separate housing facilities, with limited ability to match the pork produced back to the type of sow housing used. In fact, only one major meat packer now segregates pork by housing system. The supply is quite modest.
“A segregation and verification system must be implemented to track pigs from sow to packer and to track pork from packer to retailer before consumers can be assured of the production history behind their pork purchases,” Plain concluded.
While no doubt that could eventually be done, would consumers really be willing to pay more for their pork chops and bacon to know the type of system the sows that birthed the pigs that made the pork were housed in?
No question, pork prices would rise if producers are forced to convert their barns from stalls to pens. Prices would be further affected by the loss of production. (You can’t get the same number of sows in pens as you can with stalls in the same size barn.)
Brian Buhr, professor of applied economics at the University of Minnesota, has estimated that the cost to America’s 67,000 pork producers of converting from stalls to pens is between $1.9 billion and $3.2 billion. No price tag as yet has been put on implementing a segregation and verification system for pork products.
But the additional costs are secondary for most pork producers. Their top priority is the well-being of their animals, and gestation stalls are the best housing system for providing care to pregnant sows.
Janeen Salak-Johnson, an associate animal science professor at the University of Illinois, has studied gestating sows in various housing systems, monitoring their stress, environmental physiology and well-being. What she has found is that stalls work.
She also has found that HSUS isn’t telling the truth about pigs in stalls, falsely claiming that they have health problems, including infections, sores and mental stress. The stall issue is being driven by activists and others with an agenda, Salak-Johnson says, not by pork producers and animal scientists.
At best, she points out that the jury — and the science — is still out on the optimum housing system for gestating sows. Regardless, each type of housing system has inherent advantages and disadvantages, and, as any pork producer worth his or her salt knows, it’s not the type of housing that most affects animal well-being. It’s the husbandry skills — the care given to each animal. Like most things in life, different people have different talents, abilities and preferences, which in the case of pork producers influences their production preferences.
Much of this revolves around consumers’ understanding. Salak-Johnson relays a real-world example of consumer moms who saw an operation that uses gestation stalls and heard the science behind them. She points out that they understood and accepted the housing system, recognizing that science and technology is needed to produce an affordable, safe food supply.
Pork producers didn’t just wake up one day and decide to put sows in gestation stalls. Individual housing came about after years of working with the animals, observing their behaviors and determining what worked best to provide them the greatest possible care.
Why would a producer want to abandon a system that provides that? In fact, given what’s happened and is happening in the European Union, they wouldn’t.
The United Kingdom abandoned stalls in 1999, and since then pork production there has dropped by 50 percent, with some of the production shifting to E.U. states that still had stalls. Consumers there now are paying 10 percent to 20 percent more for pork — and the well-being of pigs is no better.
The same outcome awaits other E.U. countries, which must come into compliance with a gestation-stall ban by Jan. 1, 2013. Less than half of the common market’s pork producers are expected to be able to meet that deadline, and many smaller producers, faced with fines for not complying, are likely to go out of business, leading to a loss of production and higher pork prices for E.U. consumers.
The bottom line is that America’s pork producers are committed to producing safe, affordable and healthful foods for consumers, by using industry practices that have been designed with input from veterinarians and other animal-care experts. Providing humane and compassionate care for their pigs at every stage of life is one of the ethical principles to which U.S. hog farmers adhere.
It is time for HSUS — an organization whose goal is, at best, to severely shrink the size of animal agriculture in this country and, at worst, to see it vanish completely — to stop lying about how pork producers raise and care for their animals. It’s time for those who back eliminating individual sow housing to consider whether their support is right or just popular.