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September 25, 2012

More Progress on Gestation Crates, and Uncovering the 'Ham Scam'

It is an axiom in the world of business management that “the customer is always right.” The pork sector apparently doesn’t subscribe to that principle. The industry’s leadership continues to deride its biggest buyers, most of which are declaring that they want to eliminate gestation crate confinement of pigs in their supply chains.

Case in point: This week, Nebraska-based ConAgra became the latest food industry giant to announce that it will become gestation crate-free, in making a cooperative announcement with The HSUS. In response to this news, Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, slammed the company: “This pressure is coming from people that don’t understand how animals should be cared for.” You’d think that with the biggest names in the food retail world making similar announcements—including McDonald’s, Burger King, Safeway, Costco, and more—the pork industry would wake up and start recognizing just how far out of step it is with mainstream American values about how animals ought to be treated. Put simply, most Americans know that it’s cruel to lock a 500-pound, social, intelligent animal in a cage barely larger than her own body, immobilizing her.

Pig in gestation crate from Oklahoma pig investigation
The HSUS
Many companies are moving to phase out cramped
gestation crates for breeding sows.

Nelson even howled, “The use of gestation crates is really a better way to care for hogs than to care in other methods.” So much for the industry’s respect for science, which is clear that gestation crate confinement is a terrible way to treat these animals. Renowned animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin puts it bluntly when she says of gestation crates, “Confining an animal for most of its life in a box in which it is not able to turn around does not provide a decent life.”

The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is so out of synch with trends in agriculture that it not only defends immobilizing pigs in tiny cages for essentially their whole lives, but it’s actively lobbying to kill federal legislation to improve the treatment of egg-laying hens, despite the fact that the bill is backed by the egg industry’s leadership and would have no impact on the pork industry.

It’s partly for that reason that The Humane Society of the United States yesterday filed a lawsuit along with an independent pig farmer and on behalf of HSUS pig farmer members in federal district court, charging that the National Pork Board struck an unlawful backroom deal with the NPPC for the purchase of the iconic “Pork: The Other White Meat” slogan. This “ham scam” of a deal allows $60 million in pork producers’ money collected for marketing purposes to be diverted into industry lobbying efforts aimed at harming animal welfare and small farmers.

While we can’t force NPPC to care about animals or family farmers, through this lawsuit we can work to stop money from being unlawfully funneled straight to its lobbyists who work to kill essentially any legislation aimed at preventing cruelty to animals.

I’m heartened that some industry insiders are starting to get the message about wayward practices in the pork sector. Meat & Poultry magazine ran a major feature on The HSUS’s campaign to end the use of gestation crates this month. Its editors certainly see where the future is headed far more clearly than the NPPC and Nebraska Farm Bureau are able to do. Rather than trying to excuse the abuse inherent in gestation crate systems, the magazine’s editors declared to a seemingly reluctant industry: “This is no longer a debate about the viability of gestation crates in hog production, but rather a discussion about how producers will respond to meet expectations.”

Indeed.

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