In Pig Farming, Growing Concern
Raising Sows in Crates Is Questioned

Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 18, 2001

YORKVILLE, Ill. -- Inside each of John Kellogg's barns, long rows of grunting, snorting hogs fill every available space. The rows contain 100 animals -- all pregnant or soon to be. Every animal faces the same direction in a scene of orderliness seldom associated with pigs.

The animals are not lining up by choice: Each stands inside a narrow metal crate. The pigs, which can reach 600 pounds, will spend much of their three or four years of adult life inside these crates, unable to turn around or even lie down fully because the stalls are just two feet wide. Only when caring for piglets will the sows live outside them for long, and then in different metal crates only slightly wider so they can recline to nurse.

This farm outside Chicago is by all accounts a model of pork industry efficiency, cleanliness and productivity, and the metal "gestation crates" are nothing unusual in the nation's highly industrialized pork business. In fact, Kellogg's stalls are the norm for the fast-growing industry, holding most of the 5 million sows that give birth to 100 million piglets yearly for the ham, bacon and pork chops on America's plates.

But critics of this kind of intensive pig farming -- people ranging from animal welfare activists to academic researchers and some big pork buyers -- have been raising increasingly pointed and sometimes emotional objections to the crates. Some call the practice inherently cruel, some call it offensive because the confinement produces abnormal behaviors in relatively intelligent animals, and some worry it could endanger the pork industry if consumers begin to focus on it. In the name of progress, the critics ask, has the industry created a callous system that many people will find objectionable?

Those concerns are being translated into efforts to ban or curtail use of the crates. The European Union, where animal welfare is a hot political issue, is close to adopting legislation that would phase out the stalls within 10 years -- a decision that could have international trade implications. In Florida, American animal welfare groups are collecting signatures to place a similar statewide ban on the use of sow crates on next year's ballot, as an opening shot in a national campaign here.

A ban on gestation crates is also part of a new American Humane Association certification process for pork (and other farm products) introduced last year. The voluntary program, which is approved by the Agriculture Department, allows pig producers willing to avoid controversial farm practices to place the group's "Free Farmed" label on their meat and poultry.

But perhaps most telling, mainstream pork buyers are beginning to take note of the farm animal welfare issue. McDonald's -- with its finely tuned understanding of consumers, and especially the young -- has assembled a task force of outside experts on animal welfare and production specialists to study whether pork suppliers should be required to find alternatives to sow crates. Company officials say they plan to have a policy by year's end.

"I think the pork industry has to deal with the reality that they are raising sows in ways many people will find unacceptable," said John McGlone of Texas Tech University, who has had discussions with McDonald's about pig housing. He has been researching the health and behavior effects of the crates -- which became common in the pork industry in the 1970s -- and has designed experimental alternatives.

"I don't believe the science entirely supports the position that crates cause undue stress on animals," McGlone said. "But most consumers, when hit cold, will not think the crates are humane."

Pig farmers believe they are being unfairly accused of ignoring the well-being of their animals. Industry officials say the individual stalls contribute to animal welfare by ensuring that all sows are fed, and by preventing otherwise frequent fighting among animals. What's more, they say, crates keep prices low by allowing many sows to be raised, watched and controlled in relatively small areas, and they improve food safety by keeping animals cleaner.

"Farmers treat their animals well because that's just good business," said Paul Sundberg, a veterinarian and National Pork Producers Council vice president. "The key to sow welfare isn't whether they are kept in individual crates or group housing, but whether the system used is well managed."

Sundberg contended that "science tells us that she [a sow] doesn't even seem to know that she can't turn. . . . She wants to eat and feel safe, and she can do that very well in individual stalls."

But Sundberg acknowledged there is active scientific dispute over the effects on sows -- although he also complained some of the protest comes from vegetarians who don't want people to eat meat at all.

The crates are generally about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. One influential University of Illinois study concluded in 1988 that large pigs need stalls 10 to 12 inches wider, but industry observers say the trend now is toward narrower stalls. The stall floors are often made of concrete, with slats that allow waste to be collected below.

Kellogg, the Illinois farmer, said that years in the pork business have taught him that sow stalls do not compromise animal welfare. Having spent millions of dollars to create his highly productive sow farm (he has 1,200 sows, which produce 23,000 pigs yearly) he sees no reason to change systems to outdoor or group housing. It takes only seven people to tend the pig barns and raise the surrounding crops on the 810-acre Kellogg farm.

"Our system allows low labor costs per animal, allows us to watch each animal well, and it results in a very safe product," he said. "I don't see any problem here."

Researchers have generally not found that sows in crates have elevated levels of stress hormones, suggesting that their overall health (other than reduced muscle and bone mass) is not being compromised.

But those who do see a problem with the crates generally point to the pig's inability to perform normal behaviors as their biggest concern. Sows in stalls tend to display behavior often associated with animals experiencing extreme boredom or stress. The sows spend significant time biting the bars in front of them, chewing without food and pressing their water bottles obsessively -- but never rooting in dirt, which makes up much of instinctive pig behavior.

In a report by veterinarians that led to the pending EU legislation phasing out sow stalls, the authors concluded that abnormal behaviors "develop when the animal is severely or chronically frustrated. Hence their development indicates that the animal is having difficulty in coping and its welfare is poor."

"Animal producers will never convince the public that they care about their animals if they house them in stalls where they can't turn around for months," said David Fraser of the University of British Columbia, an animal welfare expert and member of the Burger King animal well-being advisory committee established last fall.

"I'm not saying the alternatives are necessarily better," he said. "But this particular technology does not fit with many values of animal treatment, and the . . . behaviors illustrate why."

The pork industry is closely watching what McDonald's does on sow crates because the company has a history of placing animal welfare requirements on suppliers.

The company triggered industry-wide changes when it demanded improvements in beef slaughterhouses, and last year told suppliers to stop the controversial practice of "forced molting," in which hens are denied food to renew their egg-laying ability.

McDonald's community affairs director, Robert Langert, said the gestation crates (and leather tethers used by a much smaller number of producers to control sows) were identified as significant issues by the company and its animal welfare advisory committee. The company is collecting information and looking into alternatives, and is supporting sow crate research at Purdue University. "You could fairly say it is towards the top of our agenda," Langert said.

The likely European ban on crates could raise difficult trade issues for American pork producers, who have been trying for years to expand their share of the European market. Although the EU has not sought to ban meat and poultry raised under less restrictive animal control laws, it has said government subsidies for new animal welfare requirements should be allowed under world trade agreements. American negotiators have opposed that position, which could make European pork cheaper and perhaps more appealing to consumers here.

Farm animals in the United States are generally exempted from animal cruelty laws, and the USDA had tended not to get involved. State legislatures have also been reluctant to address the issue.

This absence of government oversight encouraged animal welfare groups to form Floridians for Humane Farms last year and to begin a campaign to get the 489,000 signatures needed to place a gestation crate ban on the 2002 Florida ballot. The state has only a small pork industry -- Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota and, increasingly, Oklahoma are the leaders -- but the group is trying to make a statement.

"If you look at the wide range of factory farm abuses, you can make a strong case that this is the worst of all confinement methods because it lasts so long," said Wayne Pacelle, whose U.S. Humane Association is involved in the Florida effort along with Farm Sanctuary. "That's certainly what the Europeans have concluded, and we want people to know that."

The industry and its critics are not proposing larger stalls to resolve the issue. Instead, some pork producers and Texas Tech University have experimented with outdoor and group systems for raising sows that are as effective and productive as the stalls, McGlone said. On his research farm outside Lubbock, sows and their piglets live on fields outdoors, with small metal hoop huts for protection.

"The industry may not think that crates are a problem, but what if consumers disagree?" McGlone said. "It's time to seriously look at the alternatives."

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