Today, the world’s largest pig producer, Smithfield Foods, announced more progress in its movement away from confining mother pigs in tiny gestation crates, further acknowledging that animals built to move ought to be allowed to move.
As a matter of historical import, our quest to rid the industry of these inhumane contraptions got an enormous lift in 2007 when Smithfield Foods originally made its anti-gestation-crate pledge. The crates or cages are barely larger than the sows’ bodies and prevent them even from turning around. With the company having invested significant capital in these confinement systems, it would be no small feat to fulfill the promise. Since the 1960s, all the other big producers in the pork industry have relied on the same production techniques, and Smithfield was the first big player to make a commitment to stop the use of these crates.
The commitment came just months after The HSUS prevailed in a hotly contested ballot measure in Arizona to ban gestation crates and helped set the stage for legislative and corporate policy advances in subsequent years. Five years after the Smithfield commitment, we worked with many of the biggest names in American food retail to pledge to eliminate their procurement of pork from factory farms that use gestation crates in their supply chain. McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Safeway, and Kroger—all companies that pay real heed to price points – made those commitments. Dozens of other companies followed in their wake, with many of them committing to the 100 percent gestation-crate-free mark by 2022.
Smithfield’s competitors in the production sphere — including two of the biggest names, Tyson Foods and Seaboard — have not announced any concrete plans to even reduce their use of gestation crates, whereas Smithfield’s substantial reduction is measurable.
Today’s announcement notes that all of Smithfield’s company-owned farms now house pregnant sows in groups, rather than letting them linger for essentially their entire lives in gestation crates. There is still a long way to go for its contractors, but there’s been some movement there, too.
While we laud the company’s progress, we also don’t want to overstate it. As an image pulled from a December 2016 Smithfield Foods corporate presentation illustrates, the company still uses gestation crates at its facilities. Here’s how it works: Smithfield inseminates each breeding pig and confines her in a gestation crate for the first five to six weeks of her gestation period. During that time, she’s unable to turn around or engage in other important behaviors. Then, she’s moved into a more open “group housing” system, where she lives for about 10 weeks. After another month in a different crate (called a “farrowing” crate), she’s re-impregnated and the process starts again for her. So if a breeding pig goes through seven of these cycles of gestation, birth, and farrowing over the course of her lifetime, it would mean that all told, even under Smithfield’s new system, each sow will experience a total of 42 weeks confined in gestation crates (meaning that she would be out of the crates for roughly 70 weeks).
This is far from perfect, but it represents a dramatic reduction in Smithfield’s use of gestation crates. Again, it’s progress we applaud. It’s our intention to hold its officials to the original company pledge. That’s especially important considering that major companies like McDonald’s have made it clear their own commitments are to “end” or “eliminate” gestation crates (not reduce their usage) from their supply chains.
It’s time for Smithfield’s competitors to stop lagging, too, especially as so many major customers in food retail have pledged no-gestation-crate policies. What’s more, California voters are considering an HSUS-backed ballot measure this year to ban the sale of pork in all of California if it comes from factory farms using gestation crates – locking off a market of 38 million consumers to companies that keep relying on crates.
We look forward to working with Smithfield in the months and years to come as it goes down a path the company rightfully calls “continuous improvement.” Smithfield has made major strides –strides that we’ve publicly supported all along its journey. As we enter a new year, I’m pleased to report this progress, and look forward to more. It’s time now for the entire nation – all producers, all food retailers, and all consumers – to get fully on board too.