On Feb. 13, the McDonald’s Corporation announced that it would begin working to develop a plan to source its supply of pork sausage and processed pork trimmings from suppliers that do not use gestation stalls. Several other fast-food chains and food service distributors have followed suit over the ensuing weeks. Animal rights organizations have trumpeted the news as helping to end what they are calling “abusive practices” in the pork industry.
Within the pork industry, the reaction to these announcements has ranged from anger and frustration to a view that our industry should work to meet our customers’ requests. Whatever your viewpoint, everyone should recognize that the changes we’ve seen recently are simply the tip of the iceberg in what will be a long-running battle for the hearts and minds of U.S. consumers relative to the way that we have raised and cared for our animals.
What Does this Mean to You?
Whether you own sows or finish market hogs, raise hogs indoors or outdoors, use gestation stalls or pen gestation, the decision by McDonald’s took something away from you – your ability to make the best decision for your animals with the advice of your veterinarian and other swine care professionals.
The science supporting gestation stalls is clear – individual housing of sows protects them from aggression found in larger groups and allows individualized diets and individual care. By contrast, McDonald’s has stated that its decision was based upon the demands of its consumers and advice from its animal welfare advisory council.
Today’s issue may be gestation stalls, but the challenge ahead is that there are other issues in pork production, including castration, pain management, indoor housing and a host of other practices that are vital to the welfare of our animals and the sustainability of our industry.
If decisions about these practices are made in Oak Brook, Ill., rather than by scientists, veterinarians and farmers, the loss of freedom to choose what is best for your animals should concern each and every producer regardless of size or type of system.
Farmers have asked what the gestation stall announcements will mean at the farm level. The short answer today is, “nothing, yet.” The three major quick-serve restaurants that have made announcements have committed to work with suppliers to develop a plan that ensures their pork supplies come from gestation stall-free systems.
There are numerous challenges in developing such a plan, including tracing product from farm through processing to the consumer and what types of housing systems will be allowed under each company’s announced policy. Whenever these plans are developed, pork processors that choose to supply these customers will determine how the details of the plan will be communicated to producers, as appropriate, to meet their customers’ demands.
The Pork Checkoff’s position on sow housing recognizes that there are animal welfare advantages and disadvantages to each of the housing systems available to producers today. As we have worked with food companies – including quick-serve restaurants and others – we have emphasized the need to utilize the available science when evaluating sow housing and other animal welfare practices.
We have encouraged these food companies to recognize that veterinarians and producers will make the best decision possible for the care of the animals.
We have shared with these companies our concerns that some changes sought by animal rights organizations will have a significant impact on the environmental and economic sustainability of our industry. And we have talked about how proposed changes in pork production will impact producers.
For example, do these companies realize the pork industry’s work on carbon footprint and water footprint? And how these environmental attributes will change under different management systems? These items may not be important to food companies today, but as we’ve learned from watching Europe, we know that decisions on animal welfare practices will have significant impacts on the sustainability and the viability of the U.S. pork industry.
Raise Your Voice
Our industry always has been progressive in meeting the needs and concerns in the marketplace. The Pork Quality Assurance program was first created to address concerns from our international customers regarding the use of animal health products.
The Pork Quality Assurance® Plus program was launched in 2007 specifically to address the needs and concerns of food-chain partners relative to animal welfare and animal handling. Part of today’s reality, however, in ensuring proper animal welfare and handling means every person in your barn needs to adhere to the good production practices in PQA Plus and the We Care ethical principles. As we’ve seen, undercover videos can greatly damage the industry’s image.
Whether you are affected by today’s decisions or not, it is important to realize that future decisions on animal care could impact how you raise pigs. If you believe that you should have a right to choose, with your veterinarian, the best system, procedures and practices necessary to care for your animals, then it is time to raise your voice.
For those food companies who have made announcements, they need to hear from you. You need to let them know how the announced changes might impact your farm operation. And you need to let them know that you are in the best position to be able to make decisions regarding the care and handling of your animals.
We can and will continue to work on behalf of producers to make certain food companies understand the ramifications of their decisions. We will work to make certain they have the best science available to evaluate animal care issues that may challenge their brands.
But we cannot do the job alone. We need your help, we need your voice and we need you to share your story with these companies if we hope to make a difference in defining our future.