Gestation stalls are focus of welfare argument
|| (Courtesy of National Pork Board)
At least eight grocery, restaurant, and food service chains announced in the first half of 2012 plans to eliminate sow gestation stall use from their supply chains.
McDonald’s, Compass Group, Wendy’s, Burger King, Safeway, Kroger, Cracker Barrel, and Sonic have announced plans to gradually transition away from dependence on the individual stalls or crates most pork producers use for pregnant sows.
Of the companies that have announced deadlines for the transition, McDonald’s and Sonic plan to eliminate use of gestation stalls in the supply chains of their U.S. products no later than 2022, and Burger King and Compass Group plan to eliminate their use in supply chains for their U.S. products by 2017.
Matthew Prescott, food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, said in June his organization had been working with companies in the food industry over the past several years on sow housing and other animal welfare issues.
“And many of those relationships are now yielding the types of results that you’re seeing in the last couple of months,” he said.
The announcements from Burger King, Cracker Barrel, McDonald’s, and Safeway included supporting statements from HSUS officials. The Compass Group’s March 8 announcement didn’t mention the HSUS, but one of its subsidiaries, Bon Appétit Management Company, made an announcement similar to that of its parent company on Feb. 21 and included a statement of support from the HSUS.
Prescott thinks retailers also are responding to customer demands. He predicted that more such announcements may arrive in coming weeks or months and that the pork industry would have difficulty defending use of gestation stalls in the face of demands from its largest customers.
“American farmers have been some of the most innovative folks in our nation’s history,” Prescott said, “and I think that, with their major customers now demanding change, most of them will begin innovating and start finding ways of raising sows that comply with those customer demands while giving animals a much better life.”
Dr. Paul Sundberg, vice president of science and technology for the National Pork Board, said some of the announcements may be connected with the competitive markets for food service and groceries, and the pressure to follow efforts that could give one’s competitor an advantage.
For example, when Safeway announced May 7 that the company was forming plans to have a gestation stall–free supply chain, the company noted similar commitments made by other retailers.
But Dr. Sundberg said officials with those companies may not know how much of the nation’s pork production is connected with gestation stalls.
Most pork production involves stalls
Lisa McComb, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s, said the company buys about 250 million pounds of pork for its U.S. operations each year. That represents about 1.1 percent of the 22.7 billion pounds of pork produced in the U.S. annually from 2007 through 2011, according to figures from the Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
The Compass Group, a parent company for restaurant and food service chains such as Bon Appétit and Chartwells, buys about 38 million pounds of pork annually. A spokesman for Wendy’s declined to provide a figure for the amount of pork the company buys, and officials with Burger King, Cracker Barrel, Kroger, Safeway, and Sonic did not reply to requests for their figures.
Responses to a recent survey of companies with 1,000 or more sows indicate about 17 percent of those companies’ sows spend at least some of their time while pregnant in open pens, whereas most sows spend the duration of their pregnancies in individual housing, according to an announcement from the National Pork Producers Council. The survey results were presented in June at the World Pork Expo.
The survey indicates that, among companies that own more than 100,000 sows, about 16 percent of their animals spend some part of gestation in open pens, and about 24 percent will within two years, the announcement states. Of companies that own fewer than 10,000 sows, about 20 percent of their sows spend gestation time in pens now and about 21 percent will within two years.
Ronald L. Plain, PhD, a professor of agricultural economics and extension economist for the University of Missouri-Columbia, conducted the survey, which, he said, asked sow owners what percentage of their sows and bred gilts spent time in open pens after the animals were confirmed to be pregnant. While the survey respondents weren’t asked to identify whether the rest of their sows were kept in individual housing, he knew of few alternatives other than allowing sows outdoors.
Dr. Plain noted that operations with larger numbers of sows likely had more aggressively converted their production to individual stall use in the past 20 years, and the same companies were now most aggressively moving toward pen gestation. He said those owners may be subject to the most public pressure, and they may see opportunities to capture a premium for their products.
Smithfield Foods announced in January 2007 that the company would replace use of the stalls at its company-owned farms with use of pens over 10 years and work with contract growers to convert their operations. The company’s 2011 annual report indicates the company had about 827,000 sows.
Yet Smithfield’s announcement stated that extensive research showed gestation stalls and group pens both “provide for the well-being of pregnant sows and work equally well from a production standpoint.” Company CEO C. Larry Pope said in the announcement that the company was not endorsing one sow management system over another, but the company was sensitive to concerns of customers, who felt group housing was more animal-friendly than individual housing.
Companies cite welfare, sustainability
In committing to phase out gestation stall use, Safeway officials cited criticism over animal welfare concerns. Wendy’s officials indicated they believe confining sows in gestation stalls is unsustainable. Kroger officials indicated pregnant sows could be housed humanely in many ways but “a gestation crate–free environment is more humane.”
Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, said his organization has maintained a position that gestation stalls and pens each have advantages and disadvantages. Each can provide for sows’ welfare when properly managed, and caretaker skills are the most important factor, he said.
Veterinarians who work on swine farms have been concerned that transitioning away from gestation stalls could change how sows are managed as well as increase expenses for producers, Dr. Burkgren said. Sows tend to need more feed when moved to pens, he said, and more farm labor and different training also are needed.
“For a caretaker to individually observe each animal, to look at their body score, body condition, is going to be more difficult,” Dr. Burkgren said. “And so, it’s going to take more labor, and it’s going to take a different style of observation, I think.”
Dr. Sundberg said sow owners and veterinarians want to improve animal welfare and productivity, which, he said, go hand in hand. He thinks the companies that have promised to buy only pork produced without gestation stalls will need to provide economic incentives for producers.
Some pork producers could choose to leave the industry rather than convert their sow housing, Dr. Burkgren said. He estimated that an owner of 5,000 sows would spend up to $1 million to switch from gestation stalls to pens, an expense a producer close to retirement could have difficulty justifying.
The AVMA policy “Pregnant Sow Housing” states that gestation stall systems can minimize aggression and injury, reduce competition, and allow individual feeding and nutritional management, but they restrict normal behavior expression. Group systems are less restrictive but they can allow aggressive and competitive behaviors detrimental to some sows.
The policy indicates genetics and breed selection could promote sow welfare by matching animals with appropriate housing, and it calls for research on housing that improves welfare.
Prescott noted that the HSUS is heartened that the AVMA policy “Veal Calf Management” states that individual housing must allow a calf to turn around comfortably, and he expressed hope that the AVMA would say pigs also deserve such opportunities.
Legislators also making changes
On June 19, Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee signed into law a bill that will, within one year, prohibit tethering or confining a sow or veal calf in a way that prevents the animal from turning around freely, lying down, standing up, or fully extending its limbs. The law allows such confinement for sows during the two weeks prior to an expected date of giving birth and for calves during weaning, and a veterinarian can modify that period.
Other states such as California, Colorado, and Michigan have passed legislation that prohibits or will prohibit use of gestation stalls or require room for animals to stand, lie down, and turn around.
CKE Restaurants, which owns Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr., and Oscar Mayer, a division of Kraft Foods, announced just before press time they are committed to phasing out use of gestation stalls in their supply chains.