As more pork processors and food companies announce plans to source hogs from farms that provide additional room for pregnant sows, animal welfare groups are pushing for even more industry involvement. 

Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork processor, yesterday said it is recommending that its independent sow growers equip their farms with group housing systems for pregnant animals during the four-month gestation period, instead of the more widely used individual gestation stalls.

The announcement by the $13 billion global meat company follows a Smithfield policy set in 2007 and confirms the growing influence of consumers’ animal welfare preferences on major food retailers. Smithfield said it would provide contract extensions to suppliers who switch to group housing. For growers who elect not to participate, their current contracts won’t change, but extensions are less likely, it said.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the most recognizable driver for reforming production-animal housing policies, serves as a resource for companies and food retailers deciding to make group housing commitments. The organization notes that about 60 food companies and retailers, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Safeway, Costco and Oscar Mayer, have indicated they will limit gestation crates in their supply chains.

Matt Prescott, HSUS food policy director, said the organization worked with each of the companies that have committed to buying pork from farms using group housing facilities. He said that while other top pork producers Cargill and Hormel Foods are implementing policies that will remove gestation crates from their facilities, Tyson Foods remains the biggest meat company without a plan to switch to group housing.

On its website, Tyson says it buys hogs from all kinds of farms, some of which have group pen sow housing and some which use individual housing systems. “Experts believe both housing systems are humane for the sows when managed properly,’’ it says.

In 2007, Smithfield became the first major pork supplier to commit to transitioning to group housing systems on company-owned farms. It plans to complete the conversion on all company-owned U.S. farms by 2017 and all international farms by 2022. The company reported that its hog production subsidiary, Murphy-Brown LLC, had transitioned 54 percent of pregnant sows on its company-owned farms in the U.S. to group housing systems by the end of 2013.

"More and more food companies are looking to suppliers to move toward group housing systems for pregnant sows," Dennis Treacy, Smithfield executive vice president and chief sustainability officer, said in a news release. "To date, more than 50 companies -- many of them Smithfield customers -- have announced that they will source pork in the future from suppliers utilizing group housing."

Most of the company commitments involve a conversion timeline that extends several years.

“There’s not a one-size fit,” HSUS’ Prescott conceded. “We recommend timelines for producers to switch to open housing by the time they need to replace the crates.”

Prescott said he noticed a shift in the retail industry in February 2012, when McDonald’s first committed to no longer buying pork sourced from sows in gestation crates. He said food retailers and many ranchers have already responded to consumer attitudes about pork production, but that some in the industry continue to resist change.

The National Pork Board’s animal welfare director Sherrie Niekamp said since 2002, its checkoff program has committed $1.8 million to sow housing research, most of which demonstrates positives and negatives for a wide variety of housing methods.

“Individual producers have to be able to make the right decision of what works best for their animals, as well as husbandry skills and barn structure,” Niekamp said.

Dallas Hockman, the National Pork Producer Council’s (NPPC) vice president of industry relations, says he doesn’t see any immediate dramatic change on the U.S. pork industry.

“Most sows in the Midwest are in traditional housing,” he said, referring to individual gestation stalls. “The real question is in the economic signal being sent to make those changes.”

According to NPPC, 10 percent of all the nation’s 5.8 million sows are housed in systems other than gestation crates. Also, the majority of that 10 percent still spend some time in a stall for the breeding period of 30-40 days.

NPPC emphasizes the American Veterinary Medical Association’s position, which says current scientific literature indicates gestation stalls meet the health criteria for sows, as long as the animals are cared for properly.

Although more companies are encouraging suppliers to make a change to group housing, the shift can take time, Hockman emphasized. Complications include the costs and logistics of sourcing pigs throughout the supply chain, especially when they can be raised in one state and processed in another.  

“Most of the announcements center around intentions to move in this direction,” he said, noting that some have percentage goals and most have decade-long timelines. “Most of the discussion has been about the announcements, and not about where they are in the process.”

Hockman noted the recent state ballot initiatives in New Jersey and elsewhere to force a legislative mandate on producers to switch to group housing have failed, perhaps indicating that supply chain complications are being recognized.

However, nine states -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Rhode Island -- have effective or pending policies that limit the use of gestation crates. HSUS said its legislative objectives regarding sow housing in 2014 will focus on pending legislation in Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.


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