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Get ready to fight the 'yuck factor'

Have the media opened the door to a new barrage of food ingredient criticism based on the "yuck factor?"

Another lawsuit last week over news reports about "Pink Slime" and the damage done to people's livelihoods means more media attention to a topic that engenders immediate disgust with most shoppers. If the food system has learned anything from the market fallout over lean, finely textured ground beef, its that being safe isn't good enough anymore (if it ever really was). Media and other critics of modern food production are ramping up the attack on products that, even if they're proven safe to eat, they deem to be too high in the unnatural "yuck factor." Here are seven of the next potential targets grocers need to be aware of.

Gelatin. Vegetarians in particular may want to avert their gaze from this description. This common ingredient in everything from Jello dessert to gummy candies to ice cream to frosted cereals to yogurt is the product of a not particularly appetizing process involving the controlled chemical digestion of collagen found in the skin, boiled bones, connective tissues, organs and intestines of pigs, chickens and cattle. If lean finely textured ground beef is "pink slime," then gelatin certainly qualifies as "pig-skin jam."

 

Seaweed, anyone?Carrageenen. The vegan-acceptable form of gelatin, this seaweed extract is created through a process of harvesting, drying, grinding, filtering and cooking cultivated seaweed in a hot alkaline solution. Used like gelatin as an emulsifier and thickening agent to keep foods shelf-stable, it also is sometimes injected into meats to help them hold water. Although long considered safe and actually listed by USDA as an organic product, the additive has recently been attacked by one organics advocacy group as an unacceptable synthetic ingredient. If that attack gets traction, get ready for increased media attention on this "seaweed slime."

 

Meat GlueTransglutaminase. Used in a variety of commercial applications, from binding small pieces of raw meat together to form whole cuts, to maintaining the integrity of sausages without use of casings, to improving the texture of meats like sushimi and ham, to thickening and strengthening doughs and dairy products, to even creating novel products like lamb and scallop combinations or meat and vegetable pastas, transglutaminase is made by refining animal blood or fermenting vats of Strep bacteria. Transglutaminase comes from the same family of enzymes that cause human skin and hair to hold together and blood to clot. This one's already been stuck with the less than flattering name "meat glue."

 

Flesh batterMechanically separated meat. Ironically, the ubiquitous Internet photo that helped launch the pink-slime flap was not a photo of lean finely textured ground beef at all, but instead of mechanically separated chicken (and debate even exists as to whether the photo really shows that, or is instead a clever forgery). Regardless, mechanically separated meat and mechanically separated poultry exist. They are USDA-approved processes for recovering the edible parts of meat formerly left on animal and bird carcasses because they were too cost-prohibitive to remove by hand. Used since the 1960s, the mechanical separation process has been refined based on the original technique of passing the remaining carcass parts through a seive under pressure to remove meat from the bones. Contrary to Internet conventional wisdom, the process does not grind whole animal carcasses. Mechanically separated meat is used in cheaper processed meats like hot dogs, frozen entrees and chicken strips. Can you say "flesh batter?"

 

Carbon monoxideCarbon monoxide. Taking advantage of the same biological mechanism that causes it to bind to the hemoglobin in human red-blood cells and asphyxiate people exposed to high levels in car exhaust and faulty home furnaces, modified-atmosphere and controlled-atmosphere meat packaging uses a trace of carbon monoxide gas (along with others like carbon dioxide and nitrogen) to help prevent packaged meat from turning brown in the coolor. Such controlled packaging has been a boon to the now-estimated $10 billion case-ready meat segment--the only method by which many small retailers without an in-house butcher have been able to maintain a meatcase. By preserving the color of pre-packed and shipped meat longer, it has helped spare part of the estimated $1 billion retailers lose yearly from marking down or throwing away meat that, although perfectly safe, is no longer attractive enough to move. Meanwhile, study after study has proven the process safe, as well as the fact that beef color says nothing about whether beef is safe or unsafe to eat due to age. Look for this "exhausted meat" to continue to draw undue attention.

 

Sand in your foodSand. Silicon dioxide, or sand, is added to many foods and pharmaceuticals as an anti-caking agent to absorb water and prevent other ingredients from binding together. It can be found in salt, dry soups, spices on snacks, coffee creamer and others. Made by either boiling it out of solution or adding chemicals to precipitate it out, it is widely considered to be safe. At the same time, it is also commonly used in a wide array of non-food products that consumers might find disconcerting, including commercial glues, paints, greases and lubricants, paper, plastics and coatings. Let us call this ingredient "Grit's What's for Dinner!"

 

Antifreeze in food?Antifreeze. The colorless, nearly odorless, clear, viscous liquid known as propylene glycol is widely used in foods, from solvents for colorings and flavorings to a emulsifer. Unfortunately, this chemical cousin to the poisonous chemical ethylene glycol is also commonly used as an airplane de-icer, a plasticer, a photographic film developer, a hydraulic fluid, even one of the oil dispersants used to clean up the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon spill, and, yes, automotive antifreeze. "Antifreeze for recipes," anyone?

 

The point here?

The point is not to offer the media even more easy opportunities to make what many at the farm level saw as an unecessary, unwarranted and silly attack on food technology as was the criticism of lean finely textured ground beef. The unfortunate fact of food-system life is that literally thousands of food ingredients and processes can be attacked with clever enough presentation and language.

Where does that leave the food retailer? When it comes to countering consumer's initial impulse of disgust triggered by unflattering media, according to the research of Brown University professor Rachel Herz, an expert on the psychology of smell and emotion and author of the new book That's Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, disgust is a natural impulse, but it is also a learned impulse. What disgusts us depends on our culture, psychology and our expectations, she says--and disgust can be most piqued when we are surprised by an ingredient--as many believe was the case with pink slime, which in spite of critic's characterizations is still simply beef. Disgust that is learned through cultural cues (as critics of tobacco have successfully demonstrated, for instance) can be unlearned,as well, she argues (much as society has unlearned earlier dusgust based on racism and other prejudices.) It requires creative understanding of the psychology of disgust and perception about consumers and the culture surrounding them.

Photos courtesy:

  • Gelatin: Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr
  • Seaweed: Brittany0177/Flickr
  • Transglutaminase: Wikimedia/The Boathouse at Sunday Park

 

 

In the call for reducing farm antibiotic use, let's make sure we're comparing apples to oranges

When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced its annual Get Smart About Antibiotics Week earlier this month, to remind people to use antibiotics intelligently in order to avoid losing the effectiveness of these important medicines, it brought out media reports citing a statistic so commonly used as to now be widely accepted as fact: " Over 70 percent of antibiotics go to livestock, not to people," quoted health reporter Martha Rosenberg, for example. Most commonly, media and Internet pundits repeat the statistic that anywhere from 70 percent to 84 percent of all antibiotics used yearly in this country go to food animals. Let's take a deeper look at those figures:

Real numbers?

Although antibiotic availability is strictly regulated by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the reality is that the amount of the drugs actually used is not publicly known. Ironically, although now FDA carefully tracks and reports a summary each year of the tonnage farmers use, a similar figure for the amount used in humans is not. Even reliable estimates of the amount of antibiotics people use are decades old. The percentages commonly cited by news media are similarly only suspect estimates, not only because they rely on those old estimates of human use, but also because they rely on estimates of farm animal use  based on numerous unproven assumptions, several of which are clearly wrong (like the fact it creates out of thin air tonnages for two drugs that although they were FDA-approved were never sold in the United States.)

Meaningful numbers?

Even if you're willing to accept the 70 percent to 84 percent figures at face value, it's important to ask whether the statistic is even relevent. Here’s how to put the numbers into perspective for your customers:

  • Each year, America’s farms grow one third more animals and birds than the combined human population of the entire world. Those 9.5 billion birds and animals outnumber the U.S. human population by more than 31 times. Shouldn’t their antibiotic use be higher?
  • In addition, farm antibiotics — like most medicines, whether animal or human — are given to animals according to their weight. So you can only meaningfully compare the relative use between animals and people on a pound-per-pound basis. Not only does the U.S. population of farm animals outnumber humans, it also outweighs the U.S. human population — by almost 3.4 times. Again, since dose is based on weight, we should naturally expect animals to consume more antibiotics. In this case, their share of the total strictly by weight should be 77 percent.

Farm animals outweigh the human population three to one

  • Rather than hogging all the antibiotics, farm animals on a pound-per-pound basis actually use only a fraction of the antibiotics humans do. Based on one estimate by a USDA veterinary researcher, pound-for-pound, each human and pet consumes 10 times more of the nation’s supply of antibiotics than each farm animal uses.
  • Opponents of farm medications use another statistical sleight of hand to further inflate the implied risk that farm antibiotic consumption might be contributing to antibiotic resistance. Not every type of antibiotic they loop into their calculations is relevent to the resistance debate. Several antibiotic classes — those known as ionophores, bambermycin, carbadox, tiamulin and arsenicals — are never used in humans. So, their use in farm animals poses no risk of causing human antibiotics to fail. Subtract the drug manufacturers’ own estimates for how much of those antibiotics are used from the inflated statistics, and the oft-repeated 70 percent figure immediately falls to only 58 percent.

Not all antibiotics are equal

  • Finally, when you recalculate the estimated use of antibiotics by converting the dosage for farm animals into a comparable human dose — what’s known as an “allometric calculation,” which comes as close as possible to making an apples-to-apples comparison between the dose given humans and the dose given animals — it grows clear that farm use is not out of line. Depending on which allometric model you use, farm animals should be consuming from 2.1 to 3.7 times more antibiotics than humans in order to receive a comporable dose. In other words, an appropriate share for farms, based on the best numbers we have, should fall between 70 percent and 79 percent.

Pound for pound, pets and humans use 10 times the antibiotics of farm animals

Water-saving technology will bring corn production backThis summer’s severe Midwest drought has nearly devastated staple crops here: Almost half the growing areas for the region’s two most important crops, corn and soybeans, suffered “extreme” to “exceptional” drought. On a national scale, about two-thirds of all U.S. acres have experienced either “moderate” or “exceptional” drought—the largest area classified as such in more than half a century, USDA days.

In response, the American Farm Bureau Federation went so far as to call for a National Day of Prayer for Drought Victims in August.

With so much of the Corn Belt suffering reduced crops because of the drought, even as we enter a new marketing year with beginning stockpiles of corn at only about 7 percent of the 12.7 billion bushels we’ll need to satisfy the coming year’s demand, how will U.S. farmers ever recover enough production to satisfy that demand?

They’ll do so by continuing the pattern we’ve experienced year after year: Farmers will respond to this year’s drought with a production increase of nearly 50 percent, if next year has normal weather.  Just a dozen years ago, U.S. farmers were planting only about 75 percent of the corn acres they planted this year. Next year, that number will increase another 6 percent or more by some expectations.

But that’s only half the story. The average amount of corn produced for every acre harvested will likewise continue trending upward. The average yield per acre for the last half decade, not counting this year’s drought-stressed crop, is nearly 8 percent higher than it was for the first half of the decade after 2000. It is fully 40 percent higher than the average for 20 years ago. That kind of productivity increase isn’t limited to corn. Historically, all U.S. crops are showing that pattern of farmers squeezing more and more food from the same or fewer acres. They have done so by adopting technology that makes their use of natural resources more efficient.

The quest for drought tolerance

Take, for instance, the all-important resource of water. All crops require water, and this summer’s withering drought and heat have reminded us of the need to continue improving the management of that water both this year and in the longer term.

When it comes to saving and more efficiently using water, farmers have three options: irrigate more, improve their management of the soil and environment to conserve water, and look for crops and varieties that require less. Farmers have already increased irrigation: Nebraska's 8.5 million acres under irrigation as of 2007--the latest count available--makes it the largest irrigating state in the nation. But potential to continue that growth is limited, according to Bruce Johnson, a University of Nebraska- Lincoln agricultural economist. "We’re developed pretty much to the max," he said. “In short, there is no more development frontier. From now on, Nebraskans, from the individual water user up through our policy arena, will need to wisely manage our water resources for a sustainable future.” Continuing improvements in management practices like no-till and low-till to better manage the water-saving capacity of the soil and reduce the water use of competing weeds are also being made every season.

But it's development of crops, specifically corn, that are genetically bred to more efficiently use water that may be the real bright spot. "Drought tolerance conferred through biotech crops is viewed as the most important trait that will be commercialized [from] 2006 to 2015, and beyond, because it is by far the single most important constraint to increased productivity for crops worldwide," according to Greg O. Edmeades, former head of the corn drought program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. "Drought tolerant biotech/transgenic maize is the most advanced of the drought tolerant crops under development."

In any given year, Edmeades predicts, the world loses 15 percent of its potential corn crop to drought. Regular, temporary droughts in the Corn Belt take 20 percent in some years. “Genetic modification won’t ever allow us to turn desert into farmland, and the worst droughts will continue to inflict a terrible price on agriculture," says farmer and North Dakota state senator Terry Wanzek. "Yet biotechnology gives us a tool for pushing back. Just as it has helped farmers fight weeds and pests, it can help them battle dry spells too. The goal is to grow more food with less water. Drought-resistant crops will help us move even further towards that goal."

How?

Expected drought resistance progress with and without biotech

During the last century, according to Pakistan's Muhammad Ashraf, one of the world's authorities on genetic resistance to drought, conventional plant breeders have already made great strides in developing drought tolerant lines of not only corn, but also of many important food crops. For example, one breeding approach started at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in the 1970s developed a drought-tolerant corn for use in Mexico that improved yields per acre by nearly three times. However, conventional plant breeding for traits like drought tolerance are both time-consuming and labor- and cost-intensive.

New biotechnology that identifies specific genetic markers on a plant's DNA that signal an ability to withstand drought promises to greatly speed that development cycle. Using those genetic markers now makes it possible to examine the usefulness of thousands of genomic regions of a crop's genetic profile under conditions of limited water, a task that took generations and decades under conventional breeding. In addition to that "marker-assisted breeding" that offers a tool for better selection, other biotechnology also permits developers to examine the breeding value of each of the genomic regions of a plant veriety and then piece together genes of several origins in novel ways, which was not possible previously with conventional breeding tools and protocols. Monsanto, for instance, already has a drought-resistant corn variety based on introduction of such "transgenes" in the final stages of commercial development. Published scientific studies suggest that the transgene used could offer from 8 percent to 22 percent yield improvement  under a drought stress that reduces yields of conventional corn by about half--although more recent statements have downplayed these yield gains. Equally important, those yield improvements under drought don't come at the price of yield reductions under normal seasons. It's "drought gene" functions by enhancing the way the plant uses its own genetics to adapt to drought, reducing the stress reaction with which they respond and improving photosynthesis in stress conditions. That stabilized photosynthesis leads to better plant growth , which leads to increased growth of kernels per plant.

Anti-GMO campaigns targeted sweet corn this summer“Consumer concern about [Genetically Modified Organisms] is increasing rapidly in the United States and Canada,” announces the promotional materials behind a new anti-biotechnology campaign launched against retailers this summer. (Even as, the same material recognizes, “Polls show consistently that the majority of North Americans don’t really know what GMOs are, or what genetic engineering is.”)

Between market-based campaigns like the non-GMO Project and legislative and ballot initiatives like California’s controversial November ballot measure that would force cumbersome and expensive labeling requirements, genetically modified food ingredients are the hot political topic. But as the non-GMO Project’s disclaimer about polls recognizes, it’s not a true grassroots movement arising naturally from consumer demand. It is instead a movement that a small group of passionate activists are playing upon the uncertainties of consumers—and voters—to promote.
The latest Gallup data, for instance, shows three out of five Americans say they follow news about biotechnology only rarely or not at all. And more importantly, the number who don’t concern themselves with the topic is actually increasing, according to Gallup, not going down. Nevertheless, the non-GMO project PR department advises, “As awareness grows, it’s essential for leaders…to communicate effectively.”

Let's borrow some communication advice from the anti-biotech PR specialists

So in the spirit of borrowing the best ideas, take a look at these seven tips for effectively communicating about biotechnology from the non-GMO handbook and how you can adopt their ideas to effectively answer consumer questions:

1. Repetition is essential—If we want our message to penetrate mainstream consciousness we must have a unified voice.”
Excellent advice, and advice grocers understand perfectly, since most are in their customers' mailboxes at least weekly, and more often via new media. Grocers already have the shopper’s consciousness--and apparently the trust of at least eight in 10 of them, according to polls. More importantly, the grocer’s unified message is heard every time a shopper walks through the doors. And that message? No system has proven itself more effective and more worthy of the trust to reliably and cost-effectively feed the world than today’s food system that ends at your checkout lane. Local, community focused grocers have earned that trust because they understand the system, its checks and balances to ensure products, including GMO products, are not only safe, but available where, when and at a cost that takes only about a dime out of every dollar a consumer earns.

2. Start with the basics—Use every engagement as an opportunity to inform about what GMOs are and to offer a call to action.
Basics, indeed. And what are those basics? Here’s one: Experts agree the system will need to grow and produce as much food in the next few decades as the world did in the past 10,000 years combined in order to sustain the planet’s growing demand for food. Biotechnology is one technological tool that not only helps farmers grow more food on the same or less land, but also helps them:

  • Combat pests using fewer pesticides
  • Reduce the load on the environment by tilling the ground less
  • Cut their use of fossil fuels by more efficiently cropping the acres they have.

And as for the call to action? Unlike state and federal regulatory dictates that require the vague will of the consumer to be translated through some anonymous, distant bureaucracy, the grocers’ system directly asks each individual consumer, face-to-face, to either believe in them or not, and to back that faith with their own money. That call to action is unmistakable, and it usually goes something like this: “I can take you on 3…”

3. Appeal to common sense—Avoid getting bogged down in facts and figures and instead stay focused on the big picture—we have a right to know what we’re eating so that we can make informed choices.
Leaving aside the obvious question of how a consumer makes an “informed choice” about technology without facts and figures, let us take the non-GMO project PR experts at their word and focus on the big picture. Not only has the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said there is no need to label GMO products unless the technology substantially changes the nutritional makeup of the food, but also the safety of biotech products has been officially confirmed by:

  • The American Medical Association
  • The Society of Toxicology
  • The International Life Sciences Institute
  • The National Academy of Sciences in the United States
  • The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
  • The World Health Organization
  • The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
  • The European Commission

Meanwhile, the test of “common sense” can also be put up against another important question the opponents of biotechnology are typically silent about: How can seemingly reasonable people so disagree on the same issue of technology using the same scientific studies? Common sense might suggest we consider underlying motivations.  Take the top contributor to the California ballot iniative, Dr. Joseph Mercola and his Illinois-based Mercola.com Resources LLC, which has sunk about $1.5 million into the labeling initiative. Mercola has built an online empire giving sometimes questionable nutritional advice, and although the non-GMO project makes a show of appearing to involve the grocer in cooperative change, Mercola’s sentiment is anything but sympathetic to the conventional food-distribution system:


Anti-GMO campaigner Joseph Mercola

“Conventional grocery stores are not really the best places to get your food,” he writes. “...in the long run, and as much as possible, you're better off getting your food from a farmer's market or community-supported agriculture program. Food grown on a smaller scale, and especially locally grown organic food, is generally safer and more nutritious than the factory-farmed food typically sold in grocery stores.”
Likewise the Organic Consumers Association and its political lobbying arm, the Organic Consumers Fund, which has pumped nearly $1 million into the California initiative. Although its supporters, too, slot products into conventional supermarkets where they can, most are not shy about promoting direct-from-farmer sales that aim to replace, not supplement, the conventional grocery channel.

4. Keep it positive—Most people don’t want any more bad news, so our messaging should stay empowering and solutions-oriented.
Couldn’t agree more. And what could be more empowering than giving every individual shopper the widest array of foods overseen by a competent food-safety system at a price that makes it easy to pick and choose based on their own priorities? Is handing the responsibility for selecting those foods off to distant third parties, many of whom have politicized motives to “revolutionize” the system, far beyond simply providing safe food, empowering or disempowering?

5. Focus on Moms—Moms are the single most important demographic, so make sure your communications offer value to them.
Sage advice, as any working grocer knows. But the question is, who offers them real value, anti-GMO activists or grocers? Consider the prespective of one non-profit advocacy organization for low-income citizens, the National Organization for African Americans in Housing. It complained to U.S. FDA in late 2007 that milk processors marketing milk produced without biotechnology were not only taking advantage of low-income consumers, but actually risking the health of constituent children. “We worry that low-income consumers — fearing ‘hormones in milk’ but unable to afford the more expensive ‘rBST free’ products — will stop drinking milk altogether and opt for less-healthy alternatives,” executive director Kevin Marchman wrote. In direct contrast to the shadowy and ill-defined "unknowns" proposed by anti-GMO campaigners, there's stark and direct evidence that scaring mothers away from serving their children the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables will have a direct, detrimental impact on their health.

6. Stick to the talking points—Again, repetition is essential. If we collectively drive home the same three talking points at every opportunity, our message will get through MUCH louder:

  • We have the right to know what’s in the food we’re eating and feeding to our families—we deserve an informed choice.

It would appear consumers already know what’s in their food—at least the lion’s share of it. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the United States in 2011, 94 percent of soybeans grown were biotech; 90 percent of cotton is biotech and 88 percent of corn is biotech. Approximately 70 percent of processed food found on grocery store shelves contains ingredients and oils from biotech crops. Advocates of non-GMO foods already have the ability to give their consumers an informed choice by labeling their own products as “GMO-free.” In fact, the do precisely that by proxy every time they use the USDA Organic seal. Why then do they feel the need to impose that labeling through heavy-handed regulation on the other 90-plus percent of the food grocers carry? Could the excessive repitition be masking other motivations they'd prefer to avoid?

  • Genetically engineered foods have not been adequately tested; it’s unethical to be putting an experimental technology into the food we feed our families.

Biotech crops undergo intense regulatory scrutiny covering their growth in the fields to their delivery in the marketplace to ensure they are safe for consumption and do not pose any environmental hazards. Biotech crops and their food products are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Testing of biotech crops before they are introduced to market is so extensive, in fact, that it typically takes about six to 12 years and costs between $6 million and $12 million.

  • Nearly 50 countries require labels on GMOs, and many of these also have severe restrictions or bans against GMO food production or sale. We deserve the same level of protection and information as citizens in other nations around the world.

True enough. But what doesn't get said in the focus on other countries, particularly Europe, is their proscriptions on GMO technology don't necessarily occur because of safety concerns. More than 20 years ago, Europe’s Parliament officially recognized — even if stopping short of committing it to legislation — the legitimacy of what’s now known as “the fourth hurdle.” It says a technology like biotechnology seeking access to market must pass four hurdles — not the traditional three — in order to win approval. No.1, it must be safe. No. 2, it must be pure. And No. 3, it must be effective. But the new, fourth hurdle requires it also be proven to be environmentally benign and not socioeconomically damaging. Application of that fourth hurdle explains why Europe disallows not only biotechnology, but also many farm antibiotics, growth hormones and rBST--all considered perfectly safe to use by the U.S. regulatory system. (Even as, in many cases, Europe's own scientific organizations concur on their safety.)

7. Commit to ongoing collaboration—participate in regular “Managing the Non-GMO Message” meetings and webinars to help the movement stay coordinated.
Couldn't have said it better ourselves. Political movements aiming to "revolutionize" the U.S. food system are picking off individual grocers, grocery chains and other companies by attacking them one-by-one through consumer scare campaigns like the non-GMO campaigns. They are correct about the solution: Collaborating with others who have a stake and a belief in the conventional system to share information and knowledge empowers everyone. One excellent example: The Nebraska Farmer goes to Market program, which brings together grocers, farmers and everyone in between in order to reduce the vaccuum of information that naturally occurs.

Let us know what you think.

Why do pig farmers use gestation crates?The last 45 days have seen a line of announcements by food retailers and quick-service restaurant chains that they would soon begin to deman their pork suppliers phase out the use of "gestation crates," individual stalls in which pregnant and newly delivered sows are housed. Spurred by criticism from animal rights groups that the practice is cruel, Smithfield Foods, the country's largest pork farm, first announced in 2007 it would gradually abandon the practice over a 10-year period. Animal-rights groups have lobbied heavily against the practice, often successfully. Ballot initiatives banning sow stalls have passed in many states, and threat of action has led to voluntary agreements to cease their use in other states and Canada. Although Smithfield had earlier backed off on its promise because it was facing financial hardship, Smithfield President and CEO Larry Pope said the company’s hog operations had converted housing for 30 percent of its sow herd and was now back on track to meet the 2017 goal.

Since March, Wendy's, Burger King, Safeway, Sonic, Denny's, McDonalds, Cracker Barrel and Kroger have all released statements in conjunction with the Washington-based animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States announcing they plan to pressure pork suppliers to abandon the practice.

“Kroger believes that a gestation crate-free environment is more humane and that the pork industry should work toward gestation crate-free housing,” said that company in a press release co-authored in early June with HSUS.

“Kroger’s has taken a very important step for animal welfare in declaring that the pork industry must find an exit strategy for its use of gestation crates,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of  HSUS.

Faced with the continual barrage of negative media fanned by HSUS and other animal-rights advocates, grocers and their customers may rightly ask, if so many people believe the practice of crating pigs is inhumane, why do most farmers still use them?

1. It makes indoor housing practical. First, many critics are correct when they say sow stalls are a result of the indoor housing pig farmers evolved toward in the 1970s and 1980s. However, their criticism doesn’t necessarily mean indoor housing is a bad thing—most farmers moved their pigs indoors because they believed it benefited the animals, as well as the caretakers. Indoor housing made sense because it protected both animals and farmers from weather, predators, parasites, and also because it made animal performance both better and more predictable (Pigs left outdoors typically use about a quarter of the feed they eat just to keep warm in winter, for example.)

Once farmers moved pregnant sows indoors, though, they found the traditional group housing for pregnant sows that sufficed in mud barnyards didn’t work well indoors. So they turned to individual housing as the practical solution.

2. It protects individuals from the animal's natural aggression. Why didn't that group housing work for sows housed indoors? Like people who push and crowd to get on a bus where only a few seats are empty, yet will be relaxed and courteous when they know seats are available, sows will fight, wound, and even kill one another when they think their access to feed is at risk. When farmers move 350- to 550-pound bred sows--which are only normally fed a set amount of feed once daily to control their weight--into indoor group pens, sows begin to anticipate the feed delivery, understand there will only be a set amount to go around, and begin to fight for the lion’s share of it. As a result, weaker sows will be injured, as well as be starved of their allotted feed portion. At the same time, the "boss" sows will eat too much, making them overly fat, which will eventually harm their ability to give birth to and feed a healthy set of baby pigs.

By instead training sows to eat in individual stalls before putting them into groups, farmers are in effect training them that fighting doesn’t earn them any additional feed. Each individual is ensured the correct amount of feed and the ability to eat it in peace and safety.

3. It improves the farmer's ability to manage individual animals. It would be disingenuous not to recognize that individually confining animals does also improve the farmer’s ability to manage them, by making it easier and quicker to give them medications, check their condition, and perform other tasks. However, the additional expense of crating sows (it is more expensive to build individual crates than group-housing pens) likely couldn’t justify those management concerns; the predominant reason is to prevent group fighting. Stalling is a trade-off between full mobility and reassurance of feed.

It works, but is it right?

So the question becomes, is it right or wrong to force these trade-offs on an animal? The late Dr. Stan Curtis, who spent his career at University of Illinois studying questions of how animals think and the effect of modern envorinments on them, believed it was. Before his death last year, Curtis was vocally critical of today’s animal behaviorists who conclude that assessing an animal’s well-being based on the animal’s “feelings” was a valid method of assessing the cruelty of practices like gestation crates.

“As long as we can’t yet measure how a pig feels, let alone measure the depth of any such feeling—which everyone agrees we can’t do—we can only speculate, surmise, analogize and anthropomorphize,” Curtis said. In other words, according to Curtis, what humans feel when they see a sow in a crate speaks only to how that human would feel were that human confined in a crate. It says nothing about how the sow feels. Farming decisions can’t be based on those human feelings. “What we cannot do is know, set thresholds, define limits or draw lines. How then is it reasonable to expect producers to manage pigs on that basis?”

To Curtis and those who follow his thinking, the only accurate measure we have of whether the animal is suffering in a crate is what he called the “Performance Axiom:” The best single set of measurable—and manageable—indicators of an animal’s state of being will be how well it produces and reproduces compared to its predicted potential. “When bodily resources become limited because a pig is in a situation requiring extraordinary adaptation, productive processes will be the first to decrease. We can measure that. Reproductive functions will be next. We can measure that. Maintenance processes, which ensure survival, last. These observed reductions in measurable performance traits are the earliest, most sensitive indicators that a pig’s well-being has been disturbed—much more sensitive than behavioral patterns that may indirectly signify some emotional reaction,” he said.

And the research shows that although both group housing and individual crating have advantages and disadvantages, sows peform as well or better in crates than they do in stalls, as long as both systems are managed well. Paul Sundberg, a veterinarian and vice-president of science and research for the National Pork Board, summed it up well in a Washington Post article. “The key to sow welfare isn't whether they are kept in individual crates or group housing,” he said, “but whether the system used is well managed. "[S]cience tells us that [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."

What do you think about the issue? Leave a comment and get some discussion started with your fellow grocers.

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