By Janeen Salak-Johnson
The statement recently from Harris Teeter that it is requiring its pork suppliers to shift to farms that don’t use certain housing systems is the latest in a cascade of announcements from food retailers. Large household brands, including Burger King, Kmart and Safeway also have jumped on board, giving the impression of a major shift.
These retailers have consented to phase out pork products from farms that house pregnant pigs in individual pens. They want suppliers to source pork from farms utilizing group housing of sows.
This focus on just one factor of animal housing is tremendously flawed. And worse, it can be detrimental to the animals.
Having little experience with farm animals, people often confuse farm realities based on their experience with house pets. But each species is different. And in the case of pigs, there is a hierarchy of dominance and aggression on the farm that can seriously affect animal welfare.
Individual maternity pens were developed to protect animals. Back in the “good ol’ ” days, pigs were housed in group settings and even outside. But farmers moved away from these systems to provide for better welfare and safer production. Outdoor settings mean less control of the environment and less individual animal care.
The use of individual maternity pens that restrict the movement of pregnant pigs strikes some pet owners (and others) as inhumane. However, the reality isn’t that easy to understand.
Pigs, especially pregnant sows, can be very aggressive animals and exhibit domineering behavior. Housed in group settings, aggressive sows, which can weigh up to 500 pounds, attack and bite each other. Some animals threaten other sows and take their food.
The animals appear to favor individual housing. In Europe, some producers developed a “free access” maternity pen configuration in which sows are in individual pens for the first four weeks of pregnancy but can “unlock” the stall by backing out and entering a common area. Interestingly, they found that pregnant pigs will stay in the individual pens more than 90 percent of the time, and return to the same stall more than 90 percent of the time.
Housing sows individually provides for their welfare and is neither oppressive nor abusive. This is a position backed by the American Association of Swine Veterinarians and the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Ultimately, animal well-being comes down to animal care and good management. Unfortunately, farm management decisions are being undermined by animal rights groups such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States. These groups take advantage of consumers’ lack of farming familiarity and seek to stir up consumer passion.
Simply put, these animal rights groups have a vegan agenda. They don’t want people eating any animal product. They make demands that would require farmers to make renovations or build new facilities, knowing this will increase the cost for consumers. Higher cost means less demand.
There are welfare issues in any housing situation for sows, but these challenges differ in each. The way forward is to allow scientific study of new systems to see if they can improve animal welfare. Decisions on what is the best system must be scientifically based on select components that comprise the housing system — just considering a few of these can lead to 288 different configurations of group housing. It’s not just whether animals are housed individually or in groups. It’s how the feed is delivered, how sows are managed, how injuries are prevented, how aggression is minimized, how sows are cared for and so on.
Change shouldn’t be driven by propaganda-spreading activists who aren’t stakeholders or animal experts. Become an informed consumer. Better yet, ask a farmer or a scientist.
Janeen Salak-Johnson, is an associate professor of stress physiology and animal well being at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org