Gestation crate debate continues at pork event

After announcements that fast-food restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s plan to phase out purchases of pork produced on farms using gestation stalls or crates to house pregnant sows, pork producers are concerned about the economic toll that may result.

At the 2012 World Pork Expo in June in Des Moines, producers and officials of the National Pork Producers Council and National Pork Board, along with experts from universities and companies, worried out loud that the United States might follow in the footsteps of the United Kingdom and other members of the European Union, which passed regulations to ban the use of the stalls by 2013.

A University of Illinois animal science professor, Janeen Salak-Johnson, is concerned about what may happen in the United States, based on what is now unfolding in Europe. “Less than half of the EU members have been in compliance,” she said, estimating the ban could potentially decrease both pork production and consumption in the EU. “Many hog farmers in the EU will stop producing sows.”

Key Points

NPPC says the push to eliminate stalls is coming from activists, not consumers.

Consumer education is crucial for understanding modern hog production.

Producers fear the cost of conversion and regulation could hurt pork industry.

Salak-Johnson and other speakers at the World Pork Expo spoke out against the idea of outside officials regulating how producers take care of their sows. “They think they know how to treat your animals more humanely than you do,” she said. “You’re the experts; you need to define these problems and come up with the solutions to solve them properly.”

Audrey Adamson, vice president of domestic policy issues for NPPC, said the recent bill introduced in Congress requiring an increase in cage sizes for hens in egg production operations directly relates to the issue of gestation crates. “It will eliminate consumer choices, raise food prices and let federal bureaucrats tell farmers how to care for their animals,” she said. “We think farmers know best.”

The egg bill was a key topic at the Pork Expo, as pork officials and producers fear it could lead to regulations on sow housing. “If it’s in the poultry industry, animal rights activists may try to put it in the hog industry,” said Bill Luckey, NPPC member and pork producer from Columbus, Neb. “We don’t want these intrusive regulations.”

Effect on consumers

Adamson believes such a regulation would also affect consumer choice. “You’re taking away the consumer’s right to choose.” She said regulation could cause different egg and pork products to be produced the same way, eliminating markets and premiums for certain products, such as organic.

While some officials feel consumers’ interests are at stake, Salak-Johnson said consumer education is crucial in this ongoing issue, which is why she supports the Field Moms program.

“The consumer is largely out of touch with production practices,” she said. “The issue has always been driven by perception and not science.”

Both Salak-Johnson and pork board CEO Chris Novak said showing consumers the conditions in which the animals live and are produced in would help improve the understanding. “There is still a real question as to consumer understanding and consumer viewpoints,” said Novak. “We’ve reached a state where ag illiteracy, unfortunately, is at an all-time high.”

One area consumers need an understanding in is the lack of safety for sows in open-pen housing. “We need food companies to understand our systems have improved,” said Novak. “We moved to gestation stalls because it was an improvement in the welfare of the animal.”

The aggressive nature of sows and the damage they can do to one another when grouped together in pens is what Salak-Johnson explains to consumers who ask questions about crates vs. pens for sows.

A former Iowa pork producer and NPPC president, Glen Keppy, said pigs are better off today than when he first began raising them. “Looking back, they had dust, mud and other things to contend with,” he said, noting the use of A-houses and hogs raised outside. “It’s remarkable we were able to raise swine as successfully as we did in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.”

NPPC and NPB officials said contrary to statements given by some restaurant chains, concern over animal welfare isn’t based on consumer demand. “We’re tired of statements that have been made simply as a get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Dallas Hockman, NPPC vice president of industry relations, noting the pressure put on restaurants and supermarkets by animal rights activists. “We do not believe this is a consumer-driven demand issue.”

Hockman and Mark Greenwood, senior vice president of AgStar Financial Services, said the expense required to make the changes or retrofit an older operation would likely have an impact on smaller producers. “At the end of the day, it’s much easier for larger systems to adapt,” said Hockman, as the amount of capital and availability of time to transition are factors. “The larger operations have the luxury of experimenting.”

Some larger firms have already begun experimenting. University of Missouri ag economist Ron Plain discussed survey results showing 17% of the sows of 70 large firms surveyed have started using open-pen methods. He estimates this will rise to about 23% in two years. This means enough room for a pregnant sow to turn around without touching the perimeter of the stall. With a total 3.6 million sows among all 70 firms, the average amount of sows per firm is more than 50,000.

While some hog farms may be moving away from gestation stalls, the issue is not as black and white as stalls vs. open pens, and one key question yet to be answered is which is the most efficient method of housing sows under regulations. “Our industry stands ready to meet those wishes of the customer if they’re willing to pay for it,” said Hockman. However, he noted most producers are opposed to the transition, and although retrofitting an operating facility may be costly, some producers are constructing new facilities with gestation stalls. “I’ve never seen a topic that has more visceral response and more producers engaged.”

Harris is a Wallaces Farmer intern.

Where to now?

With the ongoing issue of sow housing, NPPC’s Dallas Hockman said the next big step for the pork industry is finding what the most efficient method of sow housing is, should regulations come about. “Not a lot of discussion has been had as to the pros and cons of what system you go to,” he said, noting the industry will need more time to experiment. “Such a change usually goes through a long period of adoption.”

While there are options available, Hockman said the issue isn’t as clear as just open-pen housing and gestation stalls. The use of either lacks a clear definition, as producers might use gestation stalls for a certain period, and open pens can involve different sizes of groups. Options can include small groups in open pens, large groups in open pens and electronic feeding systems.

Also, with different systems, different variables affect the results, like how a facility is operated, individual employee experience, or whether a facility is new or being retrofitted. Because the models used in Europe are so distinct and different from those in the United States, often using bedding rather than slats in pens, the transition will need some experimenting.

“There’s no given direct answer,” Hockman said. “One of the industry’s goals is to provide producers with knowledge of the options so they can choose which is best for them. This discussion really is about caregiver’s choice.”

This article published in the July, 2012 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.