Friday, January 26, 2007

More Smithfield News

The lovely and talented Kathleen D. forwarded me a triumphalist e-mail ("Victory!") from the Humane Society of the United States about Smithfield Foods, Inc.'s decision to gradually phase out confinement crates over the next decade. While this is good news (Smithfield owns about 1.2 million sows!) it can only be seen as a partial success given all the issues surrounding modern industrial agriculture and its effects on pigs.

Interestingly, I couldn't find any news about this on the Smithfield site, but the HSUS has a piece about it here. The press release notes that this decision came after voters in Florida and Arizona--neither of which has a significant number of hog farms, by the way--passed measures to outlaw confinement crates, which are typically 2 foot by 7 foot metal cages in which breeding sows are kept during their pregnancy. While these confinement crates are understandably creepy and cruel, they are the accepted industry standard. In fact, you can find a barely lukewarm response to Smithfield's decision here on the National Pork Producers Council website. According to NPPC CEO Neil Dierks:
Smithfield Foods has made a market-based decision to eliminate gestation stalls from its production system over the next 10 years. NPPC respects the right of all producers to make market decisions they believe are in their best interest. This does not change the association’s policy on gestation stalls.

The American Veterinary Medical Association and other organizations recognize gestation stalls and group housing systems as appropriate for providing for the well-being of sows during pregnancy. We support the right of all producers to choose housing that ensures the well-being of their animals and that is appropriate for their operations.
I'm left wondering if Smithfield's announcement isn't partly a response to the "Boss Hog" article in Rolling Stone that I blogged about yesterday. (You can find Smithfield's formal response to that essay here as a pdf file in case you are interested.) My hunch is that the pork industry is increasingly worried about what the public is learning about its large scale production operations. After all, in trying to continue to squeeze out a profit the industry has consolidated incredibly over the past few decades. In 1974 there were around 750,000 pig producers, which was down to 157,000 by 1997, with 3% of those producers providing 51% of all pig meat in the United States. In Iowa alone the number of farms with pigs dropped 83% between 1978 and 2002. I'm sure the numbers are even more skewed today. I'll have to make that the subject of a future post. For now, though, the public seems increasingly less likely to have the image of happy pigs on a small family farm in their heads when they think about where their pork chops come from (this, of course, assumes that they think of where their food comes from at all). The rise of what the industry calls "niche pork" (think Niman Ranch or the Chipotle chain) reflects some of this emerging consumer perspective. Certainly large producers like Smithfield want to be seen as "animal welfare friendly" in a changing food marketplace.


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