For more than a decade, The Humane Society of the United States has been focused on ending the use of small, restrictive cages used to confine breeding sows (known as gestation crates) within the pig industry. In 2007, Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork company, broke new ground by announcing that by 2017, 100 percent of its company-owned breeding operations would be free of these iron maidens. But while a majority of the breeding pigs in Smithfield’s supply system are in company-owned facilities, a very large portion still come from contractors. This gap meant that a very substantial population of “Smithfield” pigs would be left to linger in gestation crates indefinitely. Today, Smithfield announced that it will correct that deficiency.
Following recent announcements from more than 60 of the world’s largest food retailers – McDonald’s, Burger King, Safeway, Costco, Oscar Mayer and dozens more – that they will eliminate gestation crates from their supply chains, Smithfield has decided to extend its gestation crate phase-out plan to the independent contractors in its breeding system. Specifically, Smithfield is telling its contractors that if they make plans to get rid of their gestation crates, they’ll have their contracts extended; if they refuse to convert, their contracts are unlikely to be renewed. They’ll have eight years to make the conversion – a long time, to be certain, but a welcome path forward, with earlier conversion meaning better contracts.
Smithfield’s continued progress toward ending the lifelong confinement of sows means that other big players in the industry have little room to maneuver. The top producer is telling the world that a transition away from gestation crates is not just an aspiration, but is in the works, is economically viable, and is likely to be achieved in the near term. And we continue to help major food retailers commit to switching their purchasing to crate-free producers. We expect that cascade of announcements to continue. Meanwhile, nine states have banned gestation crate confinement, and a number of states will consider similar legislation this year.
The fact is, Tyson Foods, Seaboard, and other major pork producers are increasingly out of step not only with the American public, but with their own industry and their customers.
One day, in the not too distant future, all people will regard the era of immobilizing sows in crates barely larger than their bodies as a sad chapter in the history of American agriculture. Many people, once the transition is complete, will wonder how industry leaders for so long defended this form of animal privation and daily misery and how lawmakers and others in positions of power didn’t do something about it sooner.