After years of pressure from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), several large meat processors and fast food chains are committing to more humane treatment for pigs. McDonald’s is the most recent company to jump on the pig welfare bandwagon, which many animal rights activists think will have a profound impact on the meat industry.
The shift will likely be both a challenge and an opportunity for hog and pig farmers, processors, and retailers.
Smaller farms may have a hard time with the extensive costs associated with updating all their housing for sows. Those that can’t afford to make the upgrades risk losing supply contracts with processors and retailers that want to phase out gestation crate-use.
It is also likely that higher capital expenses, for both large and small farms, will lead to increases in prices for processors and eventually consumers. Higher food costs may displease consumers more than animal welfare issues, which is why many processors and retailers probably haven’t pushed farmers to eliminate gestation crates in the past.
Sow gestation crates have long been used by pork producers for breeding pigs. About 60 to 70 percent of sows are kept in the tiny crates. Due to their hierarchical social nature, there is usually competition for food when pigs feed in groups. The crates allow for the pigs to be separated, ensuring proper feeding and fewer injuries.
However, these gestation crates, about 2 feet by 7 feet, are not big enough for pigs to turn around in. Scientific research indicates that crate confinement can lead to health problems and mental stress for animals. As a result, eight US states have banned gestation crates. The EU also restricts gestation crate use.
More US meat processors and retailers are responding to states’ bans and animal activists concerns. Some recognize that being proactive and working with animal rights groups can enhance their company’s image. Some may see a PR opportunity that outweighs the costs associated with changing livestock practices.
Hormel Foods is the latest processor to announce plans to phase out gestation crates. The company’s Arizona and Colorado plants will eliminate the crates by 2013 and 2017, respectively, to conform to new state laws. Hormel will also phase out gestation crates in Wyoming by 2017 under its own volition.
Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, has plans to be gestation crate-free by 2017. Processor Cargill has already phased out of about half of its gestation crates. Rival Tyson Foods, however, has so far resisted pressure to get rid of the confining crates.
Retailers like Burger King, Wendy’s, Sonic, Safeway, and Whole Foods all have plans in place to restrict suppliers from using gestation crates. Burger King, which started restricting gestation crate use in 2007, was the first fast food restaurant to do so, according to The New York Times.
While not the first to take the HSUS’s advice, McDonald’s elimination of gestation crates could have the largest impact on the industry. McDonald’s purchases about 1 percent of all US pork products, making it the largest pork buyer in the nation.
Instead of ending its relationships with suppliers, like some food retailers, the company has asked its five pork suppliers to provide phase-out plans by May 2012. McDonald’s buying power will encourage more processors and livestock producers to find alternatives to the restrictive crates, according to animal activists. As New York Times blogger Mark Bittman points out, like Wal-Mart, when McDonald’s does something, it sets the pace for all others.