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.
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."
If it's spring, it must be meth season.
Recent news reports about illegal labs manufacturing the drug methamphetamine from Fairbury, Waverly and others have raised the perrennial question: If illegal methamphetamine labs make such ready use of the common crop fertilizer anhydrous ammonia, why do farmers continue to make it their most popular source of crop nutrients?
File this one under the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished department: When it first developed the process to treat ground beef with trace levels of ammonia hydroxide to help abate the seemingly intractable problem of E. coli contamination in that staple product, Beef Products Inc.’s process was considered groundbreaking. The South Dakota company has been credited in large part with helping reduce the incidence the U.S. Food Safety & Inspection Service found of E. coli positives in ground beef samples from 4.5 per thousand in 2009 to 0.8 per thousand in 2011.
Little wonder, then, that many in the ground beef business began a concerted push-back after McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell staged high-profile announcements in December announcing those chains would no longer purchase the company’s beef trimming products that one former FSIS employee hung with the catchy name “pink slime.”
Critics of modern farming technology, such as the 2008 Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production, often condemn the use of antibiotic feed additives by livestock and poultry farmers. Feed additives are tiny amounts (typically the equivalent of about four single serving sweetener packets in 2,000 pounds of animal feed) of antibiotics, which improve the animal's health and in many cases make its digestion function better. Despite their use for nearly 60 years for this purpose, critics attack them as not environmentally sustainable. In fact, raising farm animals without antibiotics has now become a common food marketing ploy, often promoted as the green, economically sustainable choice.
But when held up to the light, those claims reveal their inherent logical flaw: As long as consumers insist on consuming meat, milk and eggs at anywhere near current levels, the only thing that removing antibiotic feed additives from the system accomplishes is to make the system less efficient. And when the system becomes less efficient, it becomes more wasteful of natural resources. Not only is that wasteful from an economic standpoint (arguing that reduced farm efficiency provides an economic boost because it employs more farmers is as illogical as arguing that a grocer’s shrinkage is a boon because it creates jobs for the garbage collector), but it's also environmentally wasteful. Australian veterinary consultant Stephen Page, from University of Sydney’s Veterinary School, reviewed over 2,000 global scientific studies, concluding that the use of low levels of common antibiotic additives in livestock and poultry feed ultimately helps improve the environment via numerous avenues. (Click the image for a full size version in Adobe Acrobat format)
Here's why organic and natural health claims could put you in a credibility squeeze
"Are organic foods better than conventional foods and worth the extra money?" a reader asked the Lincoln JournalStar's "Food Doc," Bob Hutkins. As you might expect, considering his position as a food-science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Food Doc was very measured in his answer, attempting to balance both sides of the sometimes contentious debate about organics.
We'd like to take this opportunity to be a bit more blunt.
Grocers seeking to make their stores the new center for wellness must do everything to guard their health-information credibility. Controlled studies are casting doubt on the ability to support claims that organic foods are healthier and more nutritious. Research continues to demonstrate what farmers intuitively understand: Over-selling the health benefits of organics may be setting us all up to disappoint educated customers.
Consumer studies have shown again and again that shoppers buy organic products first and foremost because they believe they’re getting safer, more nutritious food in exchange for the premium price. And many retailers, looking for that sales advantage, have done nothing to dissuade them of that notion—some have even openly advocated the message.
The problem is no science supports that claim, a fact of life USDA recognizes when it cautions that organic is merely a name for a process of growing plants and animals—it says nothing about the quality or safety of the food. Here’s what a sampling of the research says:
“….a consumer who buys organic food thinking that it is more nutritious is wasting a considerable amount of money,” Rosen observed. “Even if organic advocates turn out to be correct in their assertions that organic food has more nutrient content than conventional food when tested against each other in valid matched pairs, how is the consumer going to use this information to make the right choice? Except for just a few fruits and vegetables, the consumer can not tell what variety of a crop is being offered for sale, thus making the selection of organic or conventional a crap shoot.”
Other research concludes organic production can actually increase Salmonella contamination in eggs, poultry and pork. Other studies have shown free-range poultry have a higher risk of being infected with Campylobacter. Pastured animals and birds also have higher rates of parasitic worm infections than their confined counterparts, studies prove.
No wonder, then, that a comprehensive review of British conventional vs. organic agriculture--although written to argue in favor of widespread adoption of organic production--nevertheless succinctly concludes: “Based on our current limited scientific knowledge, it appears that the widely held view of the public that organic foods are safer and healthier than conventional foods is incorrect for the great majority of consumers.”
Where does that leave the grocer?
Consumer studies almost exclusively show shoppers choose a retail location – and stick with it – because they trust the brand and the name. Therein lies the real power of organic. Rather than using organic standards to lecture consumers to “take their medicine” through their food, the smart retailer instead uses organic, and local, and natural and farm-fresh and the other indicators of an aura of authenticity to center themselves within both the community and the health scene. That kind of trust isn’t earned easily, and it is a highly perishable commodity that can be quickly lost by appearing to be playing loose with the true health and wellness effects of organic.