Pressure from animal-rights groups has pushed Cargill into eliminating individual stalls for sows that produce hogs for pork.
Cargill Pork, which is based in Wichita, said Monday that its sow operations will use only group housing by the end of next year, and the farms with which Cargill contracts for hog production will have only group housing by the end of 2017.
The change has come after a long campaign by animal activist groups to change the industrywide practice of housing the sows in gestation crates, steel stalls of roughly 6.5 by 2.5 feet that allow sows to stand up and lie down but not turn around.
Group housing allows the sows to walk around and interact but also opens the animals up to conflict and disease.
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Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said the momentum in the industry is clearly moving toward group housing because animal-rights groups have convinced the public to demand that retailers and restaurant chains buy pork produced by farms that don’t use gestation crates.
A wide variety of major companies have said they are moving toward not buying pork produced from such farms, according to the Humane Society of the United States. The list includes Oscar Mayer, McDonald’s and Kroger, as well as Cargill competitors Tyson and Hormel Foods.
Martin said there are benefits and drawbacks to each system, and there is no solid scientific evidence to show that sows experience better health in group housing.
“However, the court of public opinion can be pretty strong and impactful,” he said. “As more and more consumers learn where their food comes from, they want to make sure the animals are well-treated, however you define that.”
Cargill has had group housing in some of its sow operations since 2002, Martin said, and is moving faster to be 100 percent gestation-crate-free than just about anybody else.
Martin said the reason Cargill could make such a dramatic move is because it is in the process of renovating a giant hog operation in Dalhart, Texas, that will house 60,000 sows. The cost of buying and renovating the facility was $60 million, but there’s little additional cost to choosing the group housing up front, he said.
Cargill is working with its independent contractors, who will still supply 70 percent of Cargill’s hogs, to help them make the transition, Martin said.
The Humane Society of the United States, one of the country’s leading animal-rights groups, welcomed Cargill’s announcement.
“I’d say it’s a significant act of leadership in the pork industry,” said spokesman Paul Shapiro. “Some are already moving toward it; Smithfield and Hormel have come out, but this is a faster timeline. And there are some other pork producers who haven’t made the commitment, so this sends a strong signal that gestation crates don’t have a future in this industry.”