Crate controversy: Pig farmers face growing pressure
February 26, 2015
It’s a Sunday morning and there’s little doubt what Matt Golden and his family are eating for breakfast.
In fact, you can smell it from the driveway – long before you hit their kitchen door.
“Yay! I love bacon,” said 12-year-old Madison, arriving home from church.
“It’s one of our favorites,” said Matt, pulling a large pan of sizzling thick-cut bacon from the oven. “We buy about three pounds a week.”
As the family sat down to pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon in their Speedway home, 13 Investigates asked more questions about that bacon. Specifically, where does it come from and how is it raised?
“It’s from pigs on a farm,” confidently explained 10-yr-old Jack, pausing before offering a more detailed picture. “They’re all in one big pen together, rolling around in mud, I guess. That’s what pigs do, right?”
For millions of pigs, the reality is much different than the picture described by Jack Golden.
2 feet wide
Pembroke Oaks sow farm granted WTHR full access to its facility in northwest Indiana to show how it raises its animals. Unlike other farms contacted by Eyewitness News, the farm allowed 13 Investigates to document a common farming practice that has triggered both controversy and outrage.
The farm has no big pens. No mud. Instead, the massive indoor barn is lined with concrete floors and long rows of steel cages.
Like most large-scale sow farms, Pembroke Oaks relies on a device called a gestation crate. Each steel crate is approximately seven feet long and two feet wide. It is large enough for a pregnant sow to stand up or lie down. But at 24-inches wide, it is too small for a 400-pound pig to turn around.
For most sows, the only time they will leave the gestation crate is about twice each year to deliver a litter of piglets. That happens in a larger stall called a farrowing crate, which confines the mother pig in a way that prevents her from accidentally crushing her newborn babies. Otherwise, a sow’s whole life is usually spent in a gestation crate — until she’s about 3 years old and sent to slaughter.
“When you look at this picture and you see what a gestation crate is, it is the definition of animal cruelty,” said Matt Dominguez, a spokesman for the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s most vocal opponent of gestation crates.
“Pigs are highly intelligent and highly social. When you put them in a gestation crate, they can’t turn around. They are unable to socialize with each other. They are unable to act like animals and engage in natural behavior,” Dominguez said. “The day they are taken out of a gestation crate and the day they are finally killed is a godsend to them because every day for them is a day of torture.”
Gestation crates gained widespread use throughout the pork industry in the 1980s and 1990s, as farmers looked to move their hogs from harsher outdoor conditions to temperature-controlled indoor facilities. At the same time, smaller family farms gave way to larger commercial operations, and gestation crates provided an opportunity to increase efficiency.
But critics believe the transition to gestation crates was misguided, largely focusing on profits – not animal welfare.
“When you put an animal – any animal — in a space where they can’t even turn around for their entire life, they are driven insane,” Dominguez said. “It is inhumane to treat an animal in this manner.”
Pembroke Oaks and other commercial sow farms vehemently disagree.
“Inhumane? Absolutely not,” said Kurt Nagel, sow production director for Belstra Milling Company, which owns Pembroke Oaks and five other hog farms in northwest Indiana and northeast Illinois.
Nagel says gestation crates give each sow individual care and individual feeding. That’s important because pigs tend to form social hierarchies, and in open spaces, stronger sows often bully the weaker ones out of food.
“The more timid sows or smaller sows can get beat up pretty bad,” he explained, while giving WTHR a tour of Pembroke Oaks. “The advantage to the individual stalls is it gives each and every sow protection from the other and she’s never fighting for her next meal with somebody who’s more dominant.”
Nagel says keeping the animals safe and well fed makes for “comfortable” pigs — even if they are in gestation crates. At the same time, he is quick to recognize the criticism.
“There is a downside that they don’t get to turn around and move around freely or associate with other animals, but in our experience, it hasn’t been that big of a deal. It’s not as critical as what most people would think. The misconception is [pigs] feel it’s more like a jail cell than what it actually is,” Nagel said.
Weighing the evidence
Determining who’s right – the pig farmers who defend gestation crates as best for animal welfare or the animal rights activists who condemn them as animal torture – is not exactly easy.
Both sides claim to have medical science in their corner.
The National Pork Producers Council points to a review by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) that highlights some benefits of gestation stalls – minimized aggression and injury, reduced competition, individual feeding and control of body condition – as evidence that the crates are a legitimate and responsible farming practice. (The AVMA study also points out detrimental aspects of gestation stalls, as well.)
The Humane Society of the United States cites other studies that suggest animal welfare is greatly lowered for sows placed in gestation crates and that farm productivity related to the reproductive performance of sows is equally high on farms that use alternatives to gestation stalls.
A more recent review by the AVMA lists the benefits and limitations of various types of sow housing methods.
“If we were to stack up all the papers written about sow housing, you’d have one pile that was three feet high that says gestation stalls are OK, and you’d have another equally as high that would say there’s big problems with gestation stalls,” said Dr. Thomas Parsons, director of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Swine Teaching and Research Center. “One of the challenges we face is we don’t have an accepted single measure of animal welfare. There’s many different competing agendas.”
While the science may be inconclusive, it’s important to understand the controversy surrounding gestation crates actually has nothing to do with science and everything to do with public perception.
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