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May 15, 2012

Could Pork Become the New Veal?

The HSUS and Denny’s today announced that this popular restaurant chain―with annual sales of more than half a billion dollars and more than 1,600 restaurants―will take immediate steps to get gestation crates out of its pork supply chain. Combined with the similar announcements we’ve made this year―with McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Compass Group, Bon Appétit, and Safeway―this represents a sea change in what’s going on in the food retail sector with respect to animal welfare. Each one of these gestation crate announcements is a landmark, and taken collectively, they add up to breathtaking change in the world of factory farming.

Even just from a public relations perspective, it’s shocking that the pork industry continues to fight this trend and to defend gestation crate confinement, while so many of its largest corporate customers are making it clear that gestation crates must go. In the absence of dramatic reform, pork may well be on its way to becoming the new veal―with one abusive practice (think gestation crates for veal crates) coming to define the broader domain of industrial farming and confinement agriculture. The release of images from The HSUS’s latest undercover investigation last week, showing deeply disturbing mistreatment of pigs at a gestation crate facility run by Wyoming Premium Farms, made the point more dramatically than words could ever convey.

Pig in gestation crate from Oklahoma pig investigation
The HSUS
Many breeding sows are forced to live in cramped
gestation crates for almost their entire lives.

The American Veal Association recently released data showing that more than 70 percent of veal calves raised by AVA member farmers—which represent a majority of U.S. veal production—are now housing their calves in groups, instead of individual confinement crates long derided by veterinarians and animal advocates as inhumane.

Images of calves locked inside tiny crates defined what’s wrong with factory farming: a harsh, unforgiving business, where animals are treated as machines, and just about anything goes in order to drive production. For years, the veal industry defended its practices, but when we helped pass a law in Arizona in 2006 to ban veal crates, some foresighted people within the industry made a rapid turn-around. Within months, the AVA was urging its producers to phase the crates out, and leading veal producers were converting their operations to group housing.

As the veal industry makes animal welfare progress, the question must be asked: why is Big Pork defending the losing issue of gestation crate confinement? Doesn’t its rigid, unethical, and scientifically unfounded defense of gestation crate confinement―along with its effort to subvert legislation backed by The HSUS and the egg industry to transition away from barren battery cages―threaten its core business model in the long run? Do pork industry leaders think consumers are not paying attention?

It’s time for this industry to realize that it operates within a broader cultural and economic setting, in which consumers—including corporate consumers—care about animals and don’t want to see them treated like machines. Until the industry makes the switch and recognizes where mainstream sentiment exists, it will continue to draw down its finite political capital, and we’ll see if the damage to its brand will be as enduring as the images of veal calves in crates were for a sister industry in the domain of animal agriculture.

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