Humane animal treatment makes good business sense

US pork producers should heed food company and consumer demands to end gestation crates. Integrating humane treatment of animals can save companies money, help maintain and attract consumers, and even recruit talented employees.

LM Otero/AP/file
A chicken farm is pictured Dec. 2, 2008 just outside the city limits of Pittsburg, Texas. Op-ed contributor Josh Balk writes that 'standards in a typical agricultural facility consistently defy the cultural belief that animals deserve protection from the worst abuses.'

America has long been a proud nation of entrepreneurs. The embrace of a free market unleashes the full potential of our brightest minds, and that spirit has led recently to a remarkable trend of successful business models that incorporate another culturally entrenched value – a disgust for animal cruelty.

When you look at how Americans feel about animals, it makes sense that companies are now more than ever considering their welfare as part of their overall business structure. This is especially true for the food industry, which affects billions of farm animals every year. Technomic, a food industry consulting firm, found that safeguarding animal welfare outranks protecting the environment, buying fair trade, and buying local among issues consumers care about most. A study funded by the American Farm Bureau Federation found that 95 percent of Americans believe farm animals should be well cared for.

Integrating cultural values such as humane treatment of animals isn't just appealing for companies working to maintain and attract consumers; it could be a draw for talented workers. Net Impact found that 65 percent of business graduates want to make a social or environmental difference through their jobs. Deloitte found that 70 percent of young Millennials say that a company's commitment to the community impacts their decisions on where to work.

Yet standards in a typical agricultural facility consistently defy the cultural belief that animals deserve protection from the worst abuses.

In the egg industry, most hens are kept in cages so small they can't spread their wings. Veal production often involves tightly confining calves for the duration of their short lives. Chickens raised for meat are genetically manipulated to "beef up" so fast that frequently their legs break under their own weight and their hearts fail.

But it's perhaps the pork industry that models the worst practices when it comes to meeting society's expectations for responsible animal stewardship. Over the past several decades, the industry's leadership has encouraged farmers to resist traditional husbandry in favor of a system that defies what any typical person would consider decent.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the gestation crate – a cage typically used to confine breeding pigs in a space so small that the animals are virtually immobilized day in and day out for four years. These cages have come under fire from scientists, veterinarians, and animal welfare advocates alike, while most traditional farmers have avoided them for generations.

Shift from traditional husbandry

How did the pork industry reach the point at which immobilizing millions of pigs for years on end was acceptable? The answer lies in a misguided attitude seeded decades ago, when pork leaders pushed farmers to turn a blind eye to obvious and rational expectations for responsible animal care.

This shift was summed up in a 1976 Hog Farm Management article that candidly encouraged pork producers to "Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory."

In 2012, the National Pork Producers Council illustrated how deeply entrenched this attitude has become when its director of communications said, "So our animals can't turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls.... I don't know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around."

While experts such as Dr. Temple Grandin, renowned animal scientist and consultant for the major players in the meat industry, agree that pigs need enough room to move in order to avoid severe physical and mental anguish, consumers don't need a PhD in animal science to see that immobilizing a pig for virtually her entire life is inhumane. And once they learn about this practice, they naturally are repulsed by it.

Industry influence spells change

There is a silver lining. Many major US food companies that live by our nation's values of innovation and responsibility are telling pork suppliers to retire the gestation crate.

No longer limited to a few pioneering companies such as Whole Foods, Chipotle, and Bon Appétit Management Company, this rejection of gestation crates has passed a tipping point, and now the most prominent food brands have embraced the same policy. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Oscar Mayer, Costco, and more than 60 other top food companies have announced that they will purchase only pork that is made without using gestation crates.

While there is much work to be done, pork suppliers are starting to come around. Many top US pork producers, including Smithfield, Tyson, Hormel, and Cargill, have taken steps to remove gestation crates from their operations.

The power of the purse

However, key leaders in the pork industry continue to defend these crates. They argue that animals don't mind being immobilized for their entire lives and that inhumane treatment of animals isn't an important issue to people. But in excusing the use of gestation crates, pork producers ignore opportunities to embrace expectations of consumers and business-to-business demands.

Additionally, these leaders are missing an opportunity to move the industry to a more cost-effective business model. An extensive economic study from Iowa State University found that group housing of pigs costs a farmer up to 11 percent less than confining them in gestation crates.

Fortunately, responsible corporations have given good policies a place to take root, allowing those producers using better practices to be rewarded with a contract. The laggards in the pork industry will be left to feel the repercussions of a failed business strategy.

Reflecting society's values makes good business sense. A leading trade publication, Nation's Restaurant News, recently advised its readers in an editorial: "Active concern about how we treat the world around us has moved ... to the mainstream, and savvy businesses are playing a part."

Pork industry leaders should play their part in ending inhumane treatment of pigs sooner rather than later – not only for the sake of millions of animals, but for the sake of business success.

Josh Balk is director of food policy at the Humane Society of the United States.

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