July 13, 2009

Is Smithfield Decision Not to Replace Gestation Crates Ethical?

Center for a Livable Future

Center for a Livable Future

alan-goldbergAlan 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.


  1. There is no such thing as humane meat or humane slaughter. If you care about animals, eat a plant-based diet.

    To learn more, visit HumaneMyth.org.

  2. I appreciate the author’s recommendation that we make informed decisions. In order to do that, I urge the author and his readers to educate themselves about so-called “humane” animal products. http://www.humanemyth.org is a great place to learn about what really goes into the production of cage-free eggs and other animal products that are marketed as compassionate or humane. The “Behind the Myth” slide shows tell you what the industry doesn’t tell you about what happens to the animals whose flesh and secretions we use as food.

    Remember also that no matter what occurs during the lives of so-called “farm animals,” they were all brought onto this planet for one reason: so we can kill them when we have no reason for doing so other than we want to (we like the way they taste) and/or we can profit from doing so.

  3. The truth is that a lot of Americans eat meat – seriously expecting everyone to stop and turn vegetarian is unrealistic. That being said at least educating consumers about the cruelty perpetuated upon these animals is a step in the right direction. Also encouraging people to buy good brands like Applegate Farms and Organic Valley are much much better than allowing them to continue to support companies like Smithfield.

    Ask questions about where the meat you eat comes from. Knowledge is power.

  4. Posted by Brittany

    Speaking as someone who was a vegetarian for 3 years I fully understand the benefits of the lifestyle- and the drawbacks. Going veggie is hard, and often expensive if you’re trying to do it right (that is to say, if you’re trying not to be a junk food veggie). It requires planning of meals, and snacks and eating out. The sheer amount of self-discipline it requires deters most from being successful at it. Ultimately though, we are carnivores, we have canines, our bodies were made to process meat (in moderate quantities). We even have forward-facing eyes as so many carnivorous predators do. To aspire to vegetarianism or veganism is noble and I applaud those who do it, but at the end of the day when I start feeling guilty for not keeping up with my vegetarianism, I remember. I am a carnivore, I was made to be a carnivore. To begrudge people this is the same thing as telling your dog he ought to not eat meat, it’s what we were made to do. I seek out companies that treat their animals better, because I accept my carnivorous instincts and strive to balance them with my humanity. If it were within my capabilities I would rather keep, farm and kill my own animals for my own personal consumption because then I can make sure they had the best lives. I would rather hunt and kill the animal myself than allow someone to do it for me. And if along the way I find that I value that animal’s life more than my own gastronomic gratification, I probably won’t be able to bring myself to kill it. But that is my choice and my choice alone to defy what is essentially a part of mine- and your- natures.

  5. Pingback: If this does not cause you to stop eating Pork, Ham, Bacon and Sausage…nothing will. Take a stand against SMITHFIELD Foods « This Is Your Moment!

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