Pork producers ponder potential end of gestation crates

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2012 -The Wendy's hamburger chain became the latest foodservice provider to require its U.S. pork suppliers to make plans to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls. Wendy's announcement comes a month after McDonalds gave its suppliers until May to develop and deliver their plans. Also, the Compass Group, the world's largest foodservice company, said it, too, will eliminate all pork that comes from animals bred using gestation crates in its U.S. supply chain, by 2017.

Dennis Hecker, head of Wendy's Animal Welfare Council and senior vice president of quality assurance, said the company believes that confining sows in gestation stalls “is not sustainable over the long term, and moving away from this practice is the right thing to do.”

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“We are seeing the inevitability of the demise of the gestation crate,” said Paul Shapiro, director of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), of the cumulative impact of the food retailers' commitments to raise animal welfare standards for pigs.

“These are very significant players in the food industry that are making these announcements and the pork industry's response ought to be that their customers are right,” Shapiro said. HSUS, the largest U.S. animal protection organization, commended pork suppliers Smithfield Foods and Hormel for pledging to end the use of single-sow crates by 2017 and pointed out that Cargill is already 50% crate-free.

“While there have been some producers who have made their own decision to change to different types of sow housing, by no means is that any significant volume,” claimed Dallas Hockman, vice president of industry relations at the National Pork Producers Council. “Our calculations show it's less than 10% of total sow production.”

That said, Hockman indicated pork producers have demonstrated a willingness “to do things differently if the marketplace is willing to justify that through payment for the added costs” associated with product segregation and traceability. He said NPPC is working with suppliers to quantify the additional costs of group sow housing on producers, processors and packers and hopes that the information will come out as suppliers communicate their plans to McDonalds.

Animal care should not be a competitive marketing issue, countered the Animal Agriculture Alliance, but one that is based on the values of a company and its supplier partners. “It is crucial that internal discussions take place before public announcements about changes in animal care practices are made in order to maintain consumer confidence in farmers' and ranchers' products,” emphasized Kay Johnson Smith, executive vice president of the Alliance. “Strong supplier-retailer relationships are essential to the sustainability of all segments of the food industry,” Smith added.

Others who monitor animal welfare activists observe that the changes in production practices advocated by the retailers are not the result of a consumer uprising, but, in many cases, due to retail executives wanting to get HSUS off their backs. “The vulnerability in livestock and poultry production is at the retail end,” said Steve Kopperud, executive director of the Farm Animal Welfare Coalition, a farm and ranch group. “You've got a lot of Harvard MBAs sitting around talking about what makes a profit this year and what do we have to avoid, and the unfortunate thing is they don't come at it with a perspective of the reality of the production practice versus the perception.”

The problem, Kopperud argued, is two-fold: the livestock industry “doesn't have the kind of relationships it used to have” with the processing and retail segments of the business and the industry has done an “absolutely lousy job” of ensuring the public understands why practices like gestation crates are utilized.

He said meat suppliers and producer groups must become less reactive to HSUS and more proactive in educating consumers. Hockman agreed, saying, “For too long we've done a good job of raising pork, we just haven't done a good enough job of telling people how we go about doing it.”

Without elaborating, he said plans are in the works to do “aggressive outreach” to customers in the upcoming months and also noted recent efforts by NPPC and the National Pork Board to get retail “decision-makers out to our farms…so they have a better comfort level and understanding” of production practices that HSUS and its allies view as inhumane.


Original story printed in March 28, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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