Charges on crate petition 'off base': Smithfield

by Bryan Salvage
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OAK BROOK, Ill. (UPDATE) – An online petition campaign appearing on Change.org and created by Meredith Slater, a freelance field organizer for the group who starts and amplifies campaigns around sustainable food and animal protection, has received responses from more than 62,000 people – most in the past 24 hours – who are urging McDonald’s to support humanely raised pork, the group claimed.

"Change.org is an online platform that allows anyone, anywhere to create petitions around issues that they care about," a spokesperson for the group told MEATPOULTRY.com.

One petition posted on Change.org is asking McDonald’s to urge pork supplier Smithfield Foods to stop using gestation crates. A Smithfield spokesman called many charges made in the petition “way off base.”

A press release regarding the petition from Change.org relayed Smithfield keeps most of its breeding sows in gestation crates so small the animals can barely move around. Food safety and animal welfare advocates have said pigs kept in gestation crates frequently develop sores and infections from the lack of movement, and the boredom causes them to engage in repetitive behaviors like bar biting and head swaying, the petition charged.

In 2007, Smithfield announced its goal to completely phase out its use of gestation crates by 2017. But in 2009, the company backed away from this commitment, citing economic concerns, the press release said. The processor has since promised to convert 30 percent of its sows from gestation crates to group housing by the end of 2011. “But despite recently boasting record profits, Smithfield has yet to recommit to its initial goal of completely phasing out gestation crates by 2017,” the press release added.

Environmental organizations and individual activists have urged Smithfield to recommit to a total phase-out of gestation crates, to no avail, the press release continued. The petition campaign is trying a different tactic: asking Smithfield’s largest customer – McDonald’s – to demand that the pork producer “put better food safety and animal welfare standards in place.”

In an Aug. 19 email letter regarding the petition on the group’s site asking Smithfield to re-commit to phasing out gestation crates sent by Dennis Treacy, Smithfield’s senior vice president, corporate affairs and chief sustainability officer, to Change.org’s Sarah Parsons, senior organizer for the Sustainable Food section of the group, Treacy wrote, “Frankly, we are confused as to why you are asking us to ‘recommit’ to something we are already doing. However, because we are assuming your request is sincere and not simply a publicity stunt, we would like to provide you with the facts.”

Treacy’s letter to Parsons said:

  • Smithfield Foods was the first in its industry (which includes 67,000 producers) to commit to converting sow housing to group pens.
  • While the conversion slowed during the recession, at the September 2010 shareholders meeting, our CEO publicly announced that significant resources had again been committed to the conversion.
  • Every day more and more of the gestation stalls at Smithfield’s farms are being converted to group housing. “In fact, we are on track to have converted 30 percent of our sows to pens by the end of 2011,” he said.
  • Smithfield regularly updates its progress and posts that information at www.smithfieldcommitment.com.
  • Smithfield discusses the conversion and provides more information in its video series found at www.takingoutthemystery.com.
  • One petition referenced by Change.org in its correspondence to Smithfield cites an undercover investigation by an animal activist group, which took place in December 2010. Smithfield’s response, which contains findings by a team of experts including renowned animal care expert Temple Grandin, can be reviewed at www.smithfieldfoodstoday.com.

“Our farm managers and veterinarians take good care of our animals because they are the reason we are in business, and we do everything we can to ensure they are safe, comfortable, and healthy,” Treacy wrote. “It’s the right thing to do, and it is integral to our company’s success.

“We share your concern for animal well-being and strive to continue our leadership position in animal care for the swine industry,” he added. “Of course, you are free to act as you please in the best interest of your organization, but we would encourage you to review the facts and reconsider whether the claims made in this petition have any merit.”

In a later exchange between Change.org and Smithfield, Treacy wrote, “While the recession that impacted pork producers nationwide has set us back somewhat in reaching our original goal of 2017, our commitment has never wavered, as evidenced by our progress in converting 30 percent of our sows to group housing by the end of 2011 and our commitment to spend more than $300 million to achieve our stated goal. Your members can read about our progress at www.smithfieldcommitment.com. Per your email, we would like you to share that commitment with your members, as it is misrepresented in the petitions that have been placed on your site to-date."

Treacy told MEATPOULTRY.com there are two petitions posted on Change.org. “One is directed to Smithfield encouraging us to end our use of gestation stalls more quickly than we have already committed to and a second petition is aimed at McDonald’s, who they [erroneously] described as our largest customer," he said.

“The petitions are filled with inaccuracies and are very misleading to some of the well-intentioned members of Change.org,” Treacy added. “A lot of their members believe they’re doing the right thing and they trust they’re being asked to do something based on accurate information – when, in fact, I don’t think it is accurate.

“We’re a company that is taking action to phase out gestation stalls,” he continued. “That process is active and underway. We have a website posting, which has been up for months, that is tracking our progress towards making that happen. We are very much in action mode on transitioning. That’s why things like [these petitions] confuse us.”

Treacy called this situation “very frustrating.”

“We communicated back to this group,” he explained. “Oftentimes we don’t communicate back, but when we saw this, we thought this is so off base we should get our side of the story in to Change.org.

“If you look at the Smithfield petition, it suggests some of McDonald’s competitors have made a commitment to go 100 percent gestation-free and I’m not so sure that’s the case,” he added.

“They also had a statement that McDonald’s is our largest customer, which is absolutely not true,” he continued. “I don’t know where they’re getting their facts from but their facts are wrong. We have tried to be transparent. We listen to our customers. We talk to animal welfare experts daily. I wish that Change.org could be just as transparent about what they’re trying to do. They are way off base."

Meanwhile, Susan Forsell, McDonald’s USA’s vice president of quality systems, told MEATPOULTRY.com her company has been a long-time supporter of alternatives to gestation stalls, and it will continue to support the efforts of Smithfield Foods and all of its suppliers to phase them out.

“Smithfield Foods was the first major pork producer that committed to phasing out gestation stalls, and we support the company’s transparency and progress toward this goal,” she said.

“More than a decade ago, McDonald’s developed Animal Welfare Guiding Principles in conjunction with leading independent animal welfare experts, including renowned scientist Dr. Temple Grandin,” she added. “We expect our suppliers to follow these principles, adhere to our commitment to continuous improvement and incorporate industry-leading management practices in animal welfare. We hold our suppliers accountable for compliance with our principles.”

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