Most days it's easy to forget that a civilized society still allows cruel animal-husbandry practices to occur in the name of cheap, abundant food — that is, until you spend a few minutes with an animal welfare advocate. Thankfully, one such abysmal practice could soon be ended for good, at least in Vermont.
This week, the Vermont Senate is scheduled to vote on S. 239, "an act relating to ensuring the humane treatment and slaughter of animals." The bill, sponsored by Sen. Harold Giard (D–Addison), would outlaw housing pregnant pigs in so-called gestation crates, a practice the Humane Society of the United States calls one of the cruelest, intensive confinement systems used in factory farming today.
According to HSUS research, breeder sows spend nearly all of their four-month-long pregnancies confined in barren gestation crates. Each cage is approximately two feet wide and seven feet long—so small the animals can’t even turn around or take more than a step forward or backward.
Sows can be confined in gestation crates for years on end, enduring repeated cycles of impregnation. Virtually unable to move, they suffer muscle and bone weakness that often leads to lameness. Many become neurotic, engaging in repetitive coping behaviors such as constantly biting the bars in front of them until they bleed (see photo, right). Due to the extreme length of time they’re confined and the severe physical restrictions the crates impose, pigs in gestation crates suffer some of the worst abuse in industrial agribusiness.
Vermont wouldn't exactly be breaking new ground with this bill. The HSUS has already successfully lobbied for the passage of similar laws banning gestation crates in eight states: Ohio, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan and Oregon. Similar bans are also pending in Delaware, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massachusetts New Jersey and New York. The practice is also illegal throughout the European Union.
The food industry itself has begun to come around, albeit slowly, that the public has no stomach for consuming food that's been tortured before reaching their plates. Most recently, McDonald’s announced that it plans to end gestation crate use in its supply chain. Other food retailers, including Harris Teeter, Wolfgang Puck, Burger King,Wendy's, Red Robin, Sonic, Subway, and Safeway, have all taken steps to distance themselves from sourcing pork from producers that use gestation crates. Smithfield, the largest U.S pig producer, has announced a plan to end its use of gestation crates in company-owned breeding facilities by 2017. And Cargill, the nation's eighth-biggest pig producer, has stated that more than half of its sows are no longer confined in gestation crates.
Interestingly, the economics of gestation crates don't make much apparent sense, either. Iowa State University, located in the heart of pork-producing country, conducted a two-and-a-half year economic analysis of gestation crates versus group housing. ISU researchers found that "reproductive performance can be maintained or enhanced in well-managed group housing systems… without increasing labor." Overall, the study concluded that "group housing… resulted in a weaned pig cost that was 11 percent less than the cost of a weaned pig from the individual stall confinement system."
S.239 is expected to be voted on by Wednesday or Thursday.
Photo courtesy of HSUS.