New Jersey Governor Chris Christie won the praise of United States hog farmers and the National Pork Producers Council after vetoing legislation that would have banned the use of individual housing for pregnant sows.
"This is a great example of a governor standing up to powerful lobbying groups on behalf of small, independent farmers," says NPPC President-elect Dr. Howard Hill, a veterinarian and pork producer from Cambridge, Iowa. "America's family hog farmers thank Governor Christie for rejecting this bad legislation."
The legislation, backed by the Humane Society of the United States and other animal rights activists, would have prevented farmers from caring for their animals in a way approved for providing the well-being of sows during pregnancy by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians.
"HSUS continues to drive this unreasonable legislation in states with little pork production in an attempt to push a national agenda, but states are starting to push back," Hill says.
In rejecting the legislation, Christie said: "The proper balancing of humane treatment of gestation pigs with the interests of farmers whose livelihood depends on their ability to properly manage their livestock best rests with the State's farming experts – the State Board [of Agriculture] and the Department [of Agriculture]."
In 2004, the New Jersey agriculture departments adopted "Humane Standards" for livestock. In 2008, the state Supreme Court upheld most of the standards, including a direct challenge of the regulations governing the treatment of gestating pigs.
HSUS targeting states with few pork producers
The defeat in New Jersey was the latest in a series of losses for HSUS. Few states have enacted bans through ballot initiatives or through the legislative process because of the negative impacts bans would have on local pork producers. Most recently, the legislatures in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont chose not to pass measures banning individual housing.
HSUS was strategically targeting states in the northeast, where pork producers aren't as numerous, says NPPC director of communications Dave Warner.
"I don't know that they have more than a dozen hog farmers in New Jersey, and I don't believe any of them use gestation stalls," Warner says. "New York would have the most significant pork production of those states, and it's not very big. So you can see they're trying to pick off the low-hanging fruit."
This tactic worked in states like Florida and California, where consumers were only hearing the argument of animal activists. "There weren't very many producers in those states," Warner says. "I'm sure that was the strategy of HSUS, to go where there was little opposition in the state."
The few sow operations in California were driven out by a ballot initiative approved in 2008. "All it succeeded in doing was driving jobs out," Warner says. "But that's part of the point for HSUS. If it now costs more for Californians to buy pork because they've got to import it from another state, that's parts of HSUS's goal. That means some consumers will stop buying it or they'll switch to a lower-cost alternative."
Consumers' opinions are changing
Warner says the defeats in the northeast shows consumers' opinions of individual sow housing are changing.
"I think with these five defeats, with the defeat of the HSUS-backed Egg Bill in Congress and with some other things, clearly when people are given the facts about sow housing, about how farmers raise and care for their animals, that HSUS is not going to win, and hasn't won in trying to push its vegan agenda," he says. "Because that's what this is."
Learning that individual housing provides the best care for sows from veterinarians and pork producers has been critical. "We're telling consumers this is what we do, this is how we do it and this is why we do it," Warner says. "We've come a little late to the game, but we're in it now."
The same applies to food retailers. "We've seen only one company in the last six months make an announcement on individual sow housing," Warner says. "And the vast majority of the announcements were made without talking with the pork industry. Had the companies talked with the pork industry, they would have found that individual sow housing is the best option for the well-being for the sows."
Now, some of the companies that made those announcements are having second thoughts. "They are finding out the reality, and the reality is right now at best, about 8% of pork producers use alternatives to individual sow housing. Even the majority of that 8% use gestation stalls for some period," he says. "We've estimated that by 2018, only about 15% of the hogs would be in alternative housing to individual housing."