In more good news for animal welfare, yet another major company has stepped up to the plate with a pledge to eliminate gestation crates, also known as gestational crates, from its pork farming practices. Supermarket chain Safeway told its suppliers to start preparing alternatives to meet demand, as it intends to phase gestation crates out of its supply chain.
Suppliers have been ordered to come up with proposals by the end of 2014 if they want to keep the firm’s lucrative accounts, and they’re already scrambling to implement group housing for pigs raised for food.
Pigs are extremely intelligent, social animals, who love interacting with others and their environment. On a healthy and humane farm with room to roam, they form communities that enjoy a complex hierarchy and social life. In modern industrial farming, however, pigs are kept in horrific conditions with the intent of maximizing production. Sows are kept in gestation crates, which are long, narrow stalls, for the majority of their lives. The stalls are so small the animals cannot turn around and many can’t lie down, either, forced to stand on a slatted concrete floor (for easier waste management) until they’re ready to deliver their piglets, at which point they move to farrowing crates.
Farrowing crates are little better, in that they are large enough to lie down in. Sows are separated from their piglets by metal stanchions, with just enough room for the piglets to nurse, but not enough for mother and babies to interact. As soon as they’re old enough, they’re taken away, and their mothers are returned to gestation crates for another round of breeding and pregnancy.
Advocates for farrowing and gestational crates say they reduce behavioral problems like fighting, attacking piglets, or accidentally crushing piglets during sleep. Animal welfare advocates, on the other hand, argue that many of these behaviors are not natural, and come as a result of confinement, rather than being an innate problem with pigs. They push for better housing and conditions for food animals in order to provide them with the best possible lives before slaughter, and gestation crates have become a major cause, with several states including Florida and California banning them.
Firms including McDonald’s and Costco have pledged to get them out of their supply chain, with consumer pressure mounting on companies like Tyson Foods. Safeway joins nearly 60 other companies, according to the Humane Society of the United States, with its move towards group housing for pigs and elimination of gestational crates. As more companies push their suppliers to get rid of these inhumane and outdated farming practices, the pressure on holdouts mounts: consumers have a growing list of more humane choices they can use if they choose to eat meat.
This situation is an illustration of one way in which the market can work to the advantage of animal welfare. When people pressure the market to provide a supply of humane products, the market has to respond, or risk losing customers. The economics on alternatives to gestation crates are becoming stark, as educated consumers concerned about animal welfare ask for better choices, and suppliers are obliged to respond.
Photo credit: Jos.