Is pork from a pig that spent time in a gestation crate more dangerous to eat? It appears not. But you might not feel good about eating it if you think about it too much.

That’s why a slew of retailers and restaurants in recent weeks, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Hormel Foods, Compass Group, and Bon Appetit, have all set deadlines for their own suppliers to eliminate gestation crates, choosing instead to go with “crate-free pork.”

Pork producers say 83 percent of the sows in large hog operations (more than 1,000 head) are kept in individual crates during their 114-day pregnancy. 


 “We would then estimate about 3.6 million of the 5.7 million sows in the country are in gestation crates,” says University of Missouri economist Ron Plain, who undertook the study for the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

Hog farmers use gestation crates to control the aggression of pregnant pigs and to prevent them from crushing piglets or sometimes even eating them.  For 20 years, animal rights activists have targeted gestation crates as inhumane for putting sows in such tight space in which they often cannot lay down or stand up.

Dr. Temple Grandin, the world renowned animal welfare expert, points to the behavior of the sows, which often include bar-biting, head-weaving, and tongue rolling as indicators that their needs are not being met.  The Colorado State University faculty member favors more room, more bedding materials, and enough food to satisfy the sow’s appetite.

Still, sows in gestation crates often appear more bored or depressed than stressed, and it is stress before slaughter that has been linked to higher microbiological contamination in live animals. That’s why nobody is claiming pork is unsafe to eat because of gestation crates.

But a crate-free pork movement is gaining ground even though the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) continues to support the use of the sow housing for minimizing aggression and competition between sows, for environmental protection and for reducing exposure to hazards and injuries.

The National Pork Producers Council, in a June 6 statement, said it is disappointed in the recent announcements by retailers who want to stop buying from pig farmers who use crates because their actions are being prompted by pressure from activists.

Retailers making decisions about sourcing pork products “continue to succumb to the pressures of activist groups such as the Humane Society of the United States, without any consideration of the impact on American farm families, who produce the safe and affordable pork that they sell to consumers,” said NPPC.

The statement goes on to question whether the restaurants and retailers are going to be willing to help pay to replace facilities “built for the validated practice of gestation stalls.” A 2010 study by the University of Minnesota estimates the cost of building new sow housing at $1.87 to $3.24 billion.

“These forced changes on our producers’ choice of sow housing may very well put hog farmers out of business and will certainly increase the price of pork for consumers,” the NPPC statement added. “We are American farm families and take great pride in our track record of producing a safe, affordable and healthful food for the American consumer.”

Replacing crates would likely reduce the capacity of a hog farm.   

Minnesota hog producer Randy Spronk, who is president-elect for NPPC, says: “A unit that now produces 2,400 hogs would be reduced to about 2,140 hogs. Retailers and consumers need to know the implications that this could have on pork prices and producers’ profits.”

Eight U.S. states and the European Union have already opted to phase out gestation crates.   Beginning next year, the EU will limit the use of gestation crates to the first four weeks of pregnancy.  They are already banned in the United Kingdom and Sweden, and the ban will expand to Denmark in 2014.

Bans in the U.S. have come mostly in states with lower hog production, including Florida (2002), Arizona (2006), Oregon (2007) and California (2008).  The Oregon Legislature’s 2008 ban became effective Jan. 1, 2012. Colorado, California, Maine and Michigan followed shortly after. All of these bans will have gone into effect by 2015. 

In 2010, Ohio set 2025 as a phase out date. 

Pork producer Smithfield Foods began the current round of retailer moves to crate-free pork.  Smithfield came in for criticism when it said it could not meet its own deadline.

Meanwhile, pork producers are watching federal legislators set cage sizes for hens.  Egg producers and animal rights activists have agreed to the legislation, opposed by pork and beef producers, in order to settle disputes over the use of battery cages for hens. NPPC calls the proposed law “a Pandora’s Box for special interest groups to pursue similar federal laws on pig farmers, dairy farmers, and other family farming operations.”

Retailers like Cincinnati-based Kroger want to move to crate-free pork so they will be known as “a leader in animal welfare.”  It says the move is consistent with its decade-old adoption of animal welfare standards and it’s auditing suppliers for their treatment of animals.

Kroger last year saw one of its pork suppliers, Iowa Select Farms, investigated by Mercy for Animals, the Los Angeles-based animal welfare group. Mercy said its investigation documented the cruel treatment of animals destined for Kroger stores.