It’s no secret that animal activists have had gestation-sow crates on their list of things to eliminate for some time. The issue has been smoldering with periodic sparks fueled by such things as undercover videos like the ones that surfaced a week ago.
While the pork industry addressed the potential threat by conducting scientific research and looking for answers to sow housing, one could argue that there’s been some disbelief associated with the issue. This is partly because producers rely on science as a guide and there is no clear-cut direction on gestation-sow stalls. It’s also partly because producers honor freedom of choice and one’s ability to manage a system—“what works for you, may not work for me.” And it’s partly because they didn’t really believe the activists would get serious traction to make decisions on the farm.
Besides, the chicken sector—specifically battery cages-- have long topped the activists’ list of things to address. Of course that has now changed, with the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers working cooperatively, not just to change housing for egg-laying hens but to make it a federal law.
That means gestation-sow stalls have moved to the top of the activists’ list.
Consider the fact that last week HSUS not only turned its cameras on Seaboard Foods’ and Prestage Farms’ sow facilities, it then took up its stockholder positions at Tyson Foods and Hormel Foods, calling for changes in sow housing there. That follows similar action taken late last year at Smithfield Foods’ annual meeting.
Animal activists are well organized, well funded and relentless, and it doesn’t take as long to motivate action on an issue like it once did, whether that involves consumers, lawmakers or companies.
We’ve heard Temple Grandin, Colorado State University animal well-being expert, explain that consumers are generally okay with farrowing stalls because they protect baby pigs, but that 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, the thinking goes.
These are the same people who would treat a pregnant cat or dog with kid-gloves, yet believe pregnant sows should be housed in pens where they have to compete with others for food, water and a naturally programmed drive for group hierarchy.
But logic won’t hold the trump card here, emotion will, and the fact that some producers are signed on to accommodate the activists’ pressures. HSUS is quick to point out that “eight states have outlawed” gestation-sow stalls. Food companies like Chipotle and Wolfgang Puck have agreed not to buy product from pork producers who use gestation-sow crates. Burger King, Wendy’s, Sonic, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, Quiznos and Safeway have taken steps to increase purchases of pork products from producers who don’t use gestation-sow stalls. Smithfield Foods, Hormel Foods and Cargill have agreed to work toward eliminating gestation-sow stalls within their production systems, most by 2017.
HSUS has zeroed in on brands and that will make all the difference in the world. It takes a company too much time and money to build a brand to let another entity damage it. Wal-Mart was included in HSUS’ undercover video release last week because Seaboard is a supplier. Never mind that the video didn’t show abuse, rather images were out of context and without explanation. But a consumer wouldn’t know how to fill accurate details and there’s a vast difference between reality and perception.
As Wal-Mart continues to build its image as a wholesome, low-cost food provider with consumers’ best interests in mind, it 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. I don’t mean using PQA Plus or We Care as the shield—both are good programs. But the pork sector needs to have serious conversations about which practices you can change and which ones you can live without.
Because if gestation-sow stalls are at the top of the list now, and the HSUS/UEP federal housing legislation passes, pork production is next on that list too.