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.

  • “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.”
    If the pressure came solely from ‘activists’ the pork producers wouldn’t have anything to worry about.
    Instead, the pressure is coming from the market place–that thing that libertarians demand should be the ultimate regulator of business. Yet when the market place does speak, these so-called ‘farmers’ seem to be asking for some kind of monetary protection from these changes. Rather hypocritical of them.
    The problems with CAFOs go beyond the inhumane treatment of the livestock. CAFOs pollute water ways, and lower property values of surrounding homes and farms. The employment they provide is the lowest paid, and oftentimes attracts the worst kind of worker, which is why animal cruelty is so prevalent in CAFOs.
    CAFOs also encourage overuse of antibiotics, which you don’t mention, and which does impact on the quality and safety of the meat. You also didn’t mention the increase of disease in this large confined operations–disease that can be transmitted to humans.
    The cost of meat increasing? This is not a bad thing. As it is, meat cost is kept artificially low because of farm subsidies for the grain used to feed the hogs. It is time, and past, that we actually pay the full price for meat–rather than pay it indirectly, with our taxes, our environment, and our health.

  • Fred Z.

    A boutique label for pampered pork should command a huge markup in price, eagerly paid by trendy grocery shoppers, right?
    Let the market give a thumbsup or thumbsdown on that…without all the hysterical freaking out over activists’ misrepresentation of crates or CAFO or whatever else they think will push some mindless emotional buttons with Jane Q. Public. We are getting way too much low quality unsolicited advice on how to farm from professional operatives working systematically to destroy agriculture and food production in the US. Too bad the average person only hears those destructive agenda messages repeated over and over until they begin to believe farmers are the evil ones. HSUS shills suck.

  • Fred Z. Your idea of “pampered pork” is pork from hogs that are raised using natural methods, such as allowing them to do what pigs have been doing since pigs were first domesticated. Rather than the artificial “industrial” techniques used in the last several decades.
    It so cuts into the profits of the big agribusiness interests, doesn’t it? Big agribusiness interests that pay front groups to attack organizations like HSUS and Mercy for Animals, rather than actually do a good job with the livestock.
    The sad thing is, change is inevitable, and only an idiotic company executive would think such change can be avoided by the use of these front groups. Good executives adapt to changing times. Bad executives desperately attempt to maintain the status quo.

  • Velma, Corvallis OR

    The marketplace could get all this sorted. Produce some nice pork according to activists’ prescription, label it as such, price it to pay for all the extra special hoopla and see if it sells. If it flies off the shelves pork producers will fall all over themselves to switch their practices over and sell in the new market. If it doesn’t sell then consumers really aren’t interested in paying more for extra bells and whistles on perfectly good ordinary food. If it comes down to legislation we need some laws to force activists to be completely truthful and upfront with us about what it is they are really after. They just seem to sneak around complaining and blaming all the time to try to trick us into hating each other. It is so hard to know what is true when the smear machines are working full speed. Its getting so you can’t trust anybody the way they exaggerate everything all the time.

  • Terry Ward

    Maybe it’s time to stop calling pigs in steel traps and sardine-can chickens and miles of semi-immobile cows ‘farming’.
    This is not farming.
    This never was ‘farming’.
    It is assembly-line food animal processing.
    There are farmers and there are assembly-line food processors.
    There is no logical or actual connection between the two.
    Farming is an honorable endeavor.
    There is nothing honorable in animals traveling through assembly lines like Toyotas and radios, so why don’t these guys just man up and stop pretending it is anything other then automated food processing?

  • Aesop

    I tend to agree with Terry. We need to reserve the term “farming” for our innermost dreamy revery of how we would like to think farming was lived back in some unspecified utopian heyday.
    I think we can all agree proper farming occurs only when uncle Clem and Aunt Nell slop the beautiful hog (Sadie is her name) over in the glorious mudhole with its lively flies buzzing merrily and cousin Jane collects the 4 marvelous eggs with the simply darling chicken crap and delicate pin feathers randomly stuck to ’em and cousin Jethro brings up the magical canned lima beans from the cellar and the garden never needs weeding and it is always brimming with delightful squash and every Saturday Uncle and Auntie wash the stink off cousins Jane and Jethro (they are such adorable children), load them into the colorful buckboard and, as darling songbirds regale us with perky song, dependable Buck and Bright (our splendid ox team) cheerfully trot us into town to take in another one of those modern moving picture shows after which Uncle Clem barters some dillweed we find growing wild and free alongside the cowpath at the general store in trade for heirloom flow blue china for the dining room and scented candles for the outhouse. Oh, it was a regular fairy tale life, farming as it should be! Why, oh why did we ever evolve away from such a perfect dreamworld?

  • Terry Ward

    We ‘evolved away from such a perfect dreamworld’ when neanderthals and thugs and masters-of-the-universe twits who would throw their mothers under a bus to catch a falling nickel along with their confederacy of dunces camp followers took over the food supply.

  • Grimm

    Oxcart. That’s “throw their mothers under a[n]” oxcart. That’s how it all started, I reckon. That and probably ethanol was involved.

  • oldcowdoc

    This article is a fine example of the all too often ‘journalist’ writing on something he has no understanding of the subject. Dan writes of using gestation crates to stop piglets being crushed. Well, by definition it is not a gestation crate. Sows are housed in a farrwoing crate for birth and rearing of the piglets, something completely different the a gestation crate. The farrowing crate is larger, softer, with space for the babies. Currently, the is no conversation of banning farrowing crates.
    It calls into question anything this author puts out. The truly sad thing this is not a rare occurence in any puplication or broadcast, facts are optional. (See pink slime)
    How can the populatin make an informed opinion whne so much nonsense is produced by so called experts. Turn out the lights, the party is over