Illinois farmers have a rich history, with farming traditions running back to Lincoln’s time and beyond. But as we move further into the 21st century, some are wondering: Are Illinois’ pork producers stuck in a bygone era, lagging behind those in other states?
In Illinois’ pork industry, pregnant breeding pigs are often confined day and night for four long months in gestation crates: tiny cages roughly the same size as the animals’ bodies, designed to prevent them from even turning around. The pigs are subsequently transferred into another crate to give birth, are then re-impregnated and put back into a gestation crate. This inhumane cycle repeats, pregnancy after pregnancy, for their entire lives; it adds up to years of immobilization.
The animals — social, intelligent creatures —suffer immensely. They develop pressure sores from remaining in the same positions for so long. Their muscles atrophy. Many even go insane from the boredom, repeatedly biting the bars of their cell and exhibiting clinical depression and learned helplessness.
This shockingly inhumane system was designed in the 1960s, and its use today reminds us that the Dark Ages don’t just refer to the past. Fortunately, many pork producers — like Smithfield and Cargill — are moving into the 21st century by abandoning this archaic practice. Sadly, some major producers in Illinois seem stuck in the mud.
The movement away from gestation crates comes with good reason: The biggest pork buyers — from McDonald’s and Burger King to Safeway and Costco — have announced their plans to eliminate these crates from their supply chains. They’re urging their pork suppliers to switch to group sow housing — an efficient, 21st century higher-welfare production system that’s already successfully used for about a fifth of the nation’s breeding sows.
And the demand for change comes not just from the biggest pork buyers, but from lawmakers, too. Nine states have banned gestation crates, including substantial pork-producing states like Colorado, Ohio and Michigan. They’ve been influenced by public opinion in favor of animal welfare as well as the overwhelming science confirming what common sense already tells us: pigs prefer to have the ability to move.
This is why experts like Temple Grandin, Ph.D. condemn gestation crates, arguing, “We’ve got to treat animals right, and the gestation stalls have got to go.” And the Prairie Swine Center, a prestigious pork-industry research facility, concluded in a 2013 report that “better welfare can be achieved when sows are not confined throughout gestation.”
Recognizing that science, public opinion, public policy and the marketplace are all aligned against gestation crates, one agribusiness trade publication editorialized, “You’d have to have rocks in your head to build a new sow barn with gestating sow stalls.”
Yet rocks in the head is perhaps the most appropriate diagnosis for producers still committed to using these outdated iron maidens. And the handful that remain seem stuck in a rut, languishing behind competitors on this vital issue and with no clear strategy as to how to supply the demand of a market that no longer wants its inhumane practice.
Those producers still have a chance to do better. Illinois’ pork industry has a chance to meet the market expectations and give customers what they want. But only if it joins its competitors and starts moving into the 21st century by moving away from reliance on last century’s inhumane practices.
Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States.