Animal activists are happy with Smithfield Foods’ new housing for pregnant pigs

At about 24 days old, newly-weaned piglets move down a chute at a Smithfield Foods sow farm to be transported to a wean-to-finish farm.
At about 24 days old, newly-weaned piglets move down a chute at a Smithfield Foods sow farm to be transported to a wean-to-finish farm.

Smithfield Foods is no longer housing pregnant sows on its company-owned farms in tiny gestation crates. Animal rights advocates are hailing the announcement as a win even as they call for Smithfield to do more.

Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest pork processor and hog producer, with more than 500 farms across the United States, including about 200 in North Carolina. It also has farms in Mexico, Romania and Poland, and contracts with about 2,000 family farms throughout the United States.

In 2007, Smithfield promised to move away from gestation crates and replace the crates with group housing for sows on its company-owned farms. At the same time, the company asked its contract farmers to also transition away from the crates. Smithfield, and others in the hog industry, had been criticized for impregnating and keeping sows in crates that were so small the animals could not move around. The practice was widely criticized and several states passed laws banning gestation crates.

Gestation crates are “extremely cruel,” said Marc Bekoff, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado and recent co-author of “The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age.” “They isolate the animals. They don’t get any kind of social stimulation or normal stimulation.”

In the new system, “after they’re confirmed pregnant and everything is right, they move from the stall into the group housing system. That’s where they stay while they’re pregnant,” said Stewart Leeth, Smithfield’s chief sustainability officer. In group housing, the sows live together and are able to walk around, rather than being individually confined without any mobility.

In the past 10 years, the transition to group housing has cost Smithfield Foods $360 million, Leeth said. Virgina-based Smithfield was bought in 2013 by the Shuanghui Group – now the WH Group, a publicly traded company in Hong Kong – for $4.72 billion.

The Humane Society, an animal advocacy organization, said the change is a strong step in the right direction.

“Smithfield, being the largest pork producer, has made it clear that there is no future to the practice of confining mother pigs inside crates,” said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal production for the animal advocacy organization. “Smithfield has been the leader of the pork producers when it comes to beginning to shift to group housing systems and providing animals much more room to live throughout their life.”

At the same time though, Balk said, Smithfield is “still confining sows for the first six weeks of every impregnation cycle within a gestation crate.” While Smithfield is moving in the right direction, he said the Humane Society is “urging the company to eliminate those initial six weeks of confinement.”

Leeth said the artificially inseminated sows are kept in the individual breeding stalls only until confirmed pregnant, which can take up to six weeks.

“This helps our animal-care specialists more readily identify when sows are ready for breeding,” Leeth said. “The breeding process and conception are more successful when sows are undisturbed in quiet, individual spaces.”

The Humane Society would also like to see Smithfield’s contract farms adopt the shared housing system.

“We’re certainly encouraging our contract farms to convert as well,” Leeth said. The company has asked its contract farmers in the United States to transition to group housing by the end of 2022. Smithfield will provide assistance to its contract farms by sharing its knowledge about implementing the system, Leeth said.

When transitioning, individual farmers may face economic and regulatory challenges, said Andy Curliss, CEO of the North Carolina Pork Council. “For example, a farmer who wishes to convert fully to pen gestation from stalls and maintain the same sized herd could need to expand to accommodate larger barns,” Curliss said. “However, if development has encroached on the farm, a farmer may not be able to do so while keeping in compliance with setback regulations in regard to neighboring properties.”

Worldwide, Smithfield has committed to converting all company-owned sow farms by 2022. Its operations in Poland and Romania have already completed the conversions, and the company’s joint ventures in Mexico are in the process of doing the same, according to the company.

Florida in 2002 became the first state to pass a law to phase out the use of gestation crates. Since then more than half a dozen states have followed suit, and in 2016, Massachusetts passed a law banning the sale of pork produced from gestation crates, starting in 2022, according to the Humane Society. Large grocers and restaurants, including McDonald’s, also have made commitments to only work with farms that phase out gestation crates.

When Smithfield made its decisionm the company “saw the writing on the wall,” said the Humane Society’s Balk. As laws changed and consumers expressed their outage, “that’s when [Smithfield] started to make this progress.”

Some have been motivated to change pig farming practices because they believe pigs are intelligent beings, but this is the wrong approach, said Bekoff, the University of Colorado professor.

“It doesn’t have to do with intelligence at all,” he said. “It has to do with the fact they’re sentient beings. People say ‘more intelligent animals suffer more than less intelligent animals.’ There’s just no correlation between that at all. They key question is, ‘Do they suffer?’ and ‘How do they suffer?