July 13, 2009
Alan Goldberg, Ph.D., is a former commissioner of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and is a guest blogger today for Livable Future.
The largest pork producer in the world, Smithfield Foods Inc., says it can’t afford to go through with one of its much-ballyhooed animal welfare improvement plans. The company said that it must delay plans to replace its “gestation crates” for pregnant sows with more humane “group housing.” Frankly, the decision comes as no surprise to me. Back in 2007, when the company announced that its 187 Smithfield-owned pig nurseries would be converted within 10 years, the executives refused to admit that the crates were inhumane. Rather, they said their decision was based on consumer preference. If Smithfield were truly concerned about growing consumer awareness and/or preference concerning how animals are raised for food, it would have also required that all of its contract facilities convert within the same 10-year span.
These gestation crates truly are appalling, and some have used the word cruel. A sow living in a typical industrial facility will spend the majority of her life confined in these metal and concrete stalls that are so small that she can barely lie down, let alone turn around. I won’t belabor how awful gestation crates are – they are awful. Chances are you’ve heard a great deal about them as the Humane Society of the United States and other animal welfare organizations campaigned across the country in efforts to legally have them banned. So far, six states have laws on the books that ban producers from using gestation crates. The European Union was ahead of the curve, requiring farmers to replace all gestation crates by 2013.
While serving on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production I helped develop key animal welfare recommendations (page 12 in Executive Summary) that called for the phase-out of inhumane production practices among all food animals within 10-years. They include:
a. Gestation crates do not allow the animals to turn around or express natural behaviors and they restrict the sow’s ability to lie down comfortably. Alternatives such as open feeding stalls and pens can be used to manage sows. Better yet, allow the sows the opportunity to experience pasture, mud baths, and room to walk. Pigs are intelligent, create their own toilet areas and enjoy playing with each other and even some humans.
b. Restrictive farrowing crates, in which sows are not able to turn around or exhibit natural behavior. As an alternative, farrowing systems (e.g., the Freedom
Farrowing System, Natural Farrowing Systems) provide protection to the piglets while allowing more freedom of movement for the sow.
c. Any cages that house multiple egg-laying chickens (commonly referred to as “battery cages”) encourage aggressive behavior. The industrial solution, debeak the animal so its behavior has less impact on its cage mates. There are industrial solutions that allow more natural behavior and movement and do not increase the cost of production significantly
d. The tethering and / or individual housing of calves for the production of white veal. This practice, I am led to believe, is rare in the United States, so its phase-out can and should be done quickly. Recognize that if the calf is treated as white veal, it is separated from its mother within a day if not hours after birth . Rosey veal, if pastured and raised with its mother may be acceptable to those that do eat meat.
e. Tail docking of dairy cattle and pigs. The aggressive behavior produced by concentrated housing results in these animals biting the tails of others in their queue to be milked or in their pens, respectively. This is behavior not seen in pastured animals.
In our current Industrial Food Animal Production (IFAP) system, animals are kept in highly-stressful environments that severely limit their ability to express natural behavior. If food animals were raised in environments that allowed them to express natural behavior, many of the specific inhumane practices and/or methods endemic to the IFAP system could be eliminated. Such practices include debeaking battery chickens, and tail docking animals that are forced to live in unnatural concentrations, small areas, and stressful environments. Raising animals in humane environments is both compatible with and complementary to more sustainable food animal production approaches overall -and free of the numerous public health, environmental and social impacts that are associated with IFAP
What can we do now?
Watch Food, Inc. It tells and shows it like it is.
Ask your supermarket to carry free-range eggs, meat from pastured animals, local produced, and shop farmers markets with local, sustainable products.
In restaurants, ask for source of products -Is it local, pastured?
Make informed decisions regarding animal products that you consume -and let your preferences be known. That is what Smithfield said they were responding to.
Alan Goldberg, Ph.D., is a former commissioner of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and is Professor of Toxicology and Chairman of the Board for the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.