The crate debate

by Jerry Karczewski
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In 1807, an English hog farmer named Joseph Pattinson of Essex County, England, introduced a unique method of fattening hogs for the market. A General View of the Agriculture of the County of Essex, (1813), notes “he builds his styes in divisions, each to contain a pig, and to fit him as near as may be; when he is in, he cannot attempt to turn himself round...he is enabled to lay down at pleasure. He finds that they fatten far better in these styes than in common ones, and attributes it to their being much more quiet.”

Two centuries later, Pattinson’s method of individual, closely confined housing has been creating quite a stir. Introduced into modern production in 1969, gestation crates are stalls approximately 7 ft. long by 2 ft. wide, in which breeding sows spend their entire adult lives. The system provides several benefits for producers, including lower space requirements, individual control of feeding, reduced social stress and a safer work environment for handlers. Resulting in lower costs for producers and improved physical safety for sows, this led to widespread expansion of the system in the 1980s and 90s. It is estimated that 83 percent of all breeding sows are now housed in gestation crates.

Paralleling the growth of this system is the concern about the quality of life experienced by sows in it. In recent months, the issue of gestation crates has generated an avalanche of activity. Every few weeks brings a new announcement of a food company to mandate the phase-out of gestation crates.

At press time, foodservice and retailers requiring their suppliers to phase out use of the crates included: McDonald’s Burger King, Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Sonic, Cracker Barrel, Tim Horton’s, Carl’s Jr./Hardees, Subway, Wienerschnitzel, Compass Group, Kroger, Safeway, Fresh Enterprises, Kraft Foods, Sysco, Aramark, Costco and Heinz.

Mixed response

To date, three large pork producers have announced plans to eliminate the use of gestation crates. Smithfield announced in December that they will phase out their use by 2017; 30 percent of facilities have already been converted. In January, Hormel announced that its company-owned facilities will be converted by 2017. Cargill, while not announcing a target date, has already converted over 50 percent of its facilities.

Mike Siemens, Cargill’s animal welfare leader, points out that Cargill began to phase out gestation crates over 10 years ago: “Cargill’s evaluation of alternative sow housing began in 2002,” he notes. “At that time our company began integrating the use of group housing. The change is ongoing; we continue to study alternative housing options and husbandry techniques.”

The commitment to phase out has not been across the board. Tyson Foods and Seaboard Farms are among large producers who have declined phasing out gestation crates.

A tipping point

Though recent public announcements have come in a flurry, the concern over crate housing has been simmering for years. Matt Prescott, food policy director at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), observes, “We’ve been following the growth of gestation crates since their introduction in 1969, and through the 1990s, as crate confinement reached industry-wide status. This has been a priority for us for more than a decade. We helped pass the first gestation crate ban in 2002, in Florida, and have been working with food corporations for many years to address the problem.”

While HSUS’s approach to change hasn’t been popular in the meat industry, other voices have expressed concern. Dr. Temple Grandin, widely regarded as the authority on animal-welfare and an engineer of livestock handling systems, states: “I did my own poll about gestation crates, and two-thirds of the public thought they were unacceptable. This has been since validated by a scientific survey.” Grandin believes companies need to be in tune with what people think. “You can’t sell the concept of gestation crates to the public,” she affirms. “Sows can’t turn around in a gestation crate and that’s no way to spend their whole life.” Grandin often likens the conditions to humans living their lives in an airline seat.

Perception matters

One packer laments: “This is not a customer-driven issue, but an activist-driven effort that’s gone viral, due to pressure from HSUS.”

With experts like Grandin weighing in, it’s hard to call this a manufactured issue. Studies show crates have more negative attributes than positive ones, including increased sow mortality, negative public perception and inability of the sow to demonstrate normal social behavior.

In 2001, researcher Mark Bracke compared 15 different sow housing systems, developing an overall welfare index based on 20 different welfare attributes. Gestation crates ranked as the second lowest, and were labeled as a “low welfare system.”

Moving forward

Kurt Vogel, assistant professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, advocates a proactive approach to shifting the paradigm: “This change is going to come,” he says. “Instead of fighting it, it’s time to innovate. The sooner the transition starts, the sooner innovation occurs.”

Grandin has long been a proponent of transparency and visibility in meat production. She believes removing the shroud from how food is produced will build trust that producers are caring for animals properly; “We’ve got to get rid of objectionable things,” she affirms, “ We need to open the doors to the public, and show things on video cameras so everyone can see. Fair Oaks Dairy is building a pig farm with windows; that’s the type of thing that we need to see more of in the future.”

Getting it done right

With announcements calling for conversion time frames in as little as five years, some worry that moving too fast could have unintended consequences for sows. One processor cautioned, “It could lead to some ugly welfare situations. We need to consider longer timelines to get it done right.” Vogel agrees adding: “Don’t rush the change; it’s going to take time. This allows innovation and best practices to spread among producers. Ten to 15 years is a reasonable timeframe, and allows natural depreciation and replacement of facilities to occur.”

HSUS’ Prescott acknowledged the practical aspect of doing it in the right frame of time: “For sows in gestation crates, certainly the sooner the transition can happen, the better. But the transition also has to occur in a way that’s sustainable for producers and retailers. The timelines being set by food companies and producers – typically five to 10 years – are designed to see the change happen as the crates themselves age out. Using the normal replacement process and natural lifespan of the crate keeps the cost of conversion down.”

Vogel, Grandin and others caution against using the term “crate-free” to describe the move away from gestation stalls. Alternate systems are likely to include periods of individual confinement, such as isolating a sow for several days after breeding, and farrowing crates, which protect piglets for 2-3 weeks after they are born.

Alternate systems

The largest welfare concern in moving to group housing is the activity of dominant sows that will attack other sows in competition for food. Group housing systems are addressing this concern to prevent a step backwards in sow welfare. Systems that provide the space for social interaction and reduce competition for food are available.

Electronic sow feeding (ESF) is behavior based, in which a computer keeps track of each sow’s consumption and allocates the right amount of feed when a sow approaches individual feeding stations.

Trickle feeding enables sows housed in groups to eat quietly and at the same time. It differs from ESF in that sows can eat at the same time, keeping them interested in their own feed and not that of other sows.

Free access stalls provide the refuge of an individual stall with the social interaction of group pens.

The cost of change

Another unintended consequence is the cost of conversion. A Univ. of Minnesota study estimated the total cost of conversion to be between $1.87 billion and $3.24 billion. A producer who has already converted some facilities to group housing noted that the cost of the conversion was between $200 and $300 per sow.

Grandin, for one, believes the cost estimate may be too high: “Estimates of the cost of converting are grossly inflated. Group gestation housing will take 20 percent more space, but the lbs. of fabricated steel required will be half to two-thirds less than gestation stall housing. If construction of group housing is phased in as the current equipment wears out, that will reduce the cost of conversion.”

Costs need to be kept reasonable for the consumer, she emphasizes. “Hotel maids need to be able to afford to buy pork at the grocery store.”

Human capital

In addition to the capital cost is the human capital required in the form of labor, training and management. “Idiots can manage crates,” Grandin says. “Group pens require better stockmen with more training.” Another important component, Vogel notes, is that “management can make any well-designed housing system thrive or fail.”

The change can be positive for handlers, too. One producer reports this observation: “After the conversion, our employees responded well to group sow housing; they feel better about what’s going on with the sows.”

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 consumers have about how their food is produced. It’s time to engage the challenge and “get it done right.”

A 30-year veteran of processing-plant operations, Jerry Karczewski is a contributing editor based in Sodus Point, NY. He also is the owner of Karczewski Consulting (www.diversecattle.com), which provides humane handling and plant operations consulting services.

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