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Pork industry leaders tone deaf on animal welfare

U.S. heading toward cage-free future despite blocking maneuvers by Big Pork.
Image by Sarah Mai

It was big news for animal welfare advocates and consumers when McDonald’s recently announced it had gone 100% cage-free, two years ahead of schedule, for sourcing eggs for its breakfast offerings. That accelerated timeline serves as the most recent indicator of the momentum for ending the era of cage confinement of farm animals that originated in the 1960s and quickly came to dominate some sectors of agriculture, most notably egg and pork production.

The Minnetonka-based Cargill did much of the logistics work for McDonald’s, and Forsman Farms in Howard Lake was one of several major egg producers to shift toward cage-free housing for its millions of hens under its care. And that collective work was no small feat given that McDonald’s sells 2 billion eggs, out of 91 billion sold in the nation.

As author of The Humane Economy, where I wrote about my efforts more than a decade ago to convince McDonald’s to make cage-free and crate-free commitments for hens and sows, I have long advocated for universal adoption of more extensive animal housing systems. Animals built to move should be allowed to move.

A tale of two animal industries

While the egg industry has, occasionally with gritted teeth, generally embraced the wishes of customers for improved animal welfare standards, it’s been a different story for some players in the pork world, including the National Pork Producers Council.

Three years before it made a cage-free egg pledge, McDonald’s committed to stop purchasing pork within 10 years from operations that confine breeding sows in gestation crates.  While McDonald’s is close to achieving that goal, it’s a pledge that is two years past due. And that’s because some of its biggest pork suppliers have dragged their feet in adjusting their housing systems to supply the company with more humanely sourced bacon and sausage.

McDonald’s and the other big food retailers paid attention when animal welfare groups like mine promoted ballot measures to halt cage- and crate-confinement of animals — with voters approving five of five statewide ballot measures to ban gestation-crate confinement. After McDonald’s announced its crate-free and cage-free policies, more than 60 major American food retailers, including Target, Costco, and Burger King, followed suit.

NPPC wasn’t happy with any of this. In fact, it turned to the federal courts and tried to overturn key ballot measures. But those legal maneuvers haven’t panned out, with the trade association losing 11 straight federal cases, including its most important case, NPPC v. Ross, before the U.S. Supreme Court. Last May, a majority of conservative and liberal justices determined that California’s Prop 12 and its provisions restricting the sale of pork from gestation-crate systems, regardless of location, were not an improper exercise of state authority under the U.S. Constitution.

In the wake of that ruling, the industry appealed to Congress. Its legislation, dubbed the EATS Act, would nullify Prop 12 and any other state laws that place any kind of restrictions on interstate agricultural commerce.

One major reason that Congress seems reluctant to approve EATS is that NPPC no longer speaks for all pig producers. Thousands of them – family farm-style operations, including many in Minnesota, and major national pork production companies – have been steadily and quietly transitioning toward more humane housing systems, just like Forsman Farms and so many other big egg producers have. 

These producers see market opportunities in decisions by McDonald’s and by California voters and they are heeding the wishes of their customers.

Big Pork seems to favor China’s values on animal welfare

There may be something to the argument that the NPPC is thinking more about its foreign markets and foreign-owned members than its U.S. customers and members. U.S. pork producers export a third of all U.S.-produced pork, and none of these foreign markets impose animal welfare standards.

And the composition of the U.S. pig industry has dramatically shifted to foreign control of domestic production. NPPC’s biggest member is Smithfield Foods, which controls 26 percent of U.S. pork production. In 2013, the Bank of China provided a $5 billion loan to The Shuanghui Group to buy Smithfield. And the Brazil-based JBS controls an additional 14 percent of U.S. production, making the pig industry the most glaring example of foreign control of a major U.S. agricultural commodity group.

China’s vision for pig farming is, to say the least, dystopian. In Niexiang province, there are twenty-one 10-story and higher pig factory farms clustered together, with pigs jammed shoulder to shoulder on each floor. Not one of these pigs will ever see a ray of sunshine or enjoy a breeze buffeting their coarse coats or filling their nostrils.

That’s not the American vision for agriculture. At the ballot box and elsewhere, Americans have signaled that all animals deserve humane treatment, including those raised for food. Unyielding confinement is the antithesis of proper care.

Cargill and Forsman Farms, among many others, recognize that. Other foresighted movers in agriculture will balance production imperatives with the value systems of their customers.

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Center for a Humane Economy, is author of two New York Times best-sellers, including The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them.

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