In the wake of New Jersey’s pig protection bill being vetoed twice in recent years as a result of pork industry pressure, as we move further and further into the 21st century, many are wondering: Are pork producers stuck in the Dark Ages?
In the pork industry, pregnant breeding pigs are often confined day and night for four long months in gestation crates: tiny cages roughly the same size as the animals’ bodies, designed to prevent them from even turning around. The pigs are subsequently transferred into another crate to give birth, are then re-impregnated and put back into a gestation crate. This inhumane cycle repeats, pregnancy after pregnancy, for their entire lives; it adds up to years of immobilization.
The animals — social, intelligent creatures — suffer immensely. They develop pressure sores from remaining in the same positions for so long. Their muscles atrophy. Many even go insane from the boredom, repeatedly biting the bars of their cell and exhibiting clinical depression and learned helplessness.
This shockingly inhumane system was designed in the 1960s, and its use today reminds us that the Dark Ages don’t always just refer to the past. Fortunately, many pork producers — like Smithfield and Cargill — are moving into the 21st century by abandoning this archaic practice. Sadly, some other major producers seem stuck in the mud.
The movement by the likes of Smithfield comes with good reason: The biggest pork buyers — from McDonald’s and Burger King to Safeway and Costco — have announced their plans to eliminate gestation crates from their supply chains. They’re urging their pork suppliers to switch to group sow housing — an efficient, 21st century higher-welfare production system that’s already successfully used for about a fifth of the nation’s breeding sows.
And the demand for change comes not just from the biggest pork buyers, but from lawmakers, too. Nine states have banned gestation crates, including substantial pork-producing states like Colorado, Ohio and Michigan. They’ve been influenced by public opinion in favor of animal welfare as well as the overwhelming science confirming what common sense already tells us: Pigs prefer to have the ability to move.
This is why experts like Temple Grandin condemn gestation crates, arguing, “We’ve got to treat animals right, and the gestation stalls have got to go.” And the Prairie Swine Center, a prestigious pork-industry research facility, concluded in a 2013 report that “better welfare can be achieved when sows are not confined throughout gestation.”
Recognizing that science, public opinion, public policy, and the marketplace are all aligned against gestation crates, one agribusiness trade publication editorialized, “You’d have to have rocks in your head to build a new sow barn with gestating sow stalls.”
Yet rocks in the head is perhaps the most appropriate diagnosis for producers still committed to using these outdated iron maidens and lobbying in New Jersey to keep such cruelty legal.
Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him at twitter.com/pshapiro.
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