H.J. Heinz Co. this summer announced that it is working with its pork suppliers so that mother pigs no longer are kept in cramped crates as they give birth to litter after litter of piglets. This is a welcome new chapter in a story that's been unfolding for a long time.
When we teach our children about farm animals, we often employ old, familiar images: chickens pecking around in fields searching for bugs and seeds or pigs napping in beds of straw. These scenes are part of our agricultural heritage and at one time were an accurate portrayal of how farm animals actually lived. Unfortunately, these images and the reality of how farm animals now are treated on factory farms are radically different.
Since World War II, there has been a profound shift in the living conditions of livestock, especially for pigs and poultry. These animals were taken from a low-density environment with access to the outdoors and were concentrated inside windowless, mechanized warehouses.
One of the clearest examples of this industrialized shift is the use of "gestation crates" in the pork industry to perpetually confine mother pigs used for breeding. These crates are so small the pigs can't even turn around and are barely larger than the pigs' own bodies. Mother pigs are confined in gestation crates for their entire four-month pregnancy, moved to another cage to give birth and wean their young, and then returned to the gestation crate. This cycle continues for years.
Like other industrial-farming practices, gestation crates were adopted not to cause animals intentional harm, but rather to raise more animals with less labor. Unfortunately, this efficiency imposed a significant deprivation for mother pigs. The unrelenting cycle of confinement in crates is a severe restriction on the behavior of highly intelligent and naturally active creatures.
The good news is that there are viable innovations that make pig confinement systems obsolete. Modern "group housing" systems have been developed to efficiently care for mother pigs without restricting mobility. Consumers are demanding support for these more humane production systems and many food companies are responding to these demands.
This is the kind of system that Heinz is asking its pork suppliers to employ. Other food giants that have recently created similar initiatives include McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Costco, Safeway and Kroger. Companies such as Whole Foods and Chipotle eliminated pork from gestation crates long ago. It's never been clearer: Gestation crates have no future in America's food system.
While a powerful agribusiness lobby fights to keep the industrialized status quo, an increasing number of consumers, farmers, retailers and legislators are taking a stand against the routine abuse of farm animals and agricultural practices that deny animals even the most basic allowance of movement. Our storybook image of farms may still misrepresent much of America's livestock production, but we're beginning to move in the right direction.opinion_commentary
Josh Balk is director of corporate policy for farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States (www.humanesociety.org). Philip Horst-Landis and his wife, Dee, operate Sweet Stem Farm in Lititz, Lancaster County, raising pigs, sheep and cattle (www.sweetstem.org).