A Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) investigation at a Smithfield Foods' (SFD) pig farm in West Virginia should stand as a warning to meat companies that decide to ignore their own animal welfare promises -- HSUS is watching you and has no trouble finding people willing to be paid to go undercover with hidden cameras, posing as one of your employees.
Large meat companies should know that there's no shortage of activist groups these days eager to give Americans an unseemly glimpse into factory farming. But Smithfield, the country's top pork producer, seems to have forgotten this.
Back in 2007, the company pledged to phase out what are known as gestation crates, 2ft by 7ft structures that imprison pregnant cows and render them completely immobile, confining them to what animal welfare expert Temple Grandin refers to as a life spent trapped in an airline seat. But at a facility in Waverly, W.V., which is owned by Smithfield unit Murphy-Brown, HSUS found that airline seats are still the norm.
Among the group's grisly findings:
- bars of the crates coated with blood from the pigs' attempts to bite their way out
- three instances of still-alive pigs thrown into a dumpster full of dead pigs
- premature piglets that fell through the slats in the crates and into the manure pits below
- pigs with large abscesses and open wounds and no veterinarians around to treat them
In a conference call, Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president, said that Smithfield's sows, which can have 7 to 10 pregnancies, spend up to 3 years confined in gestation crates. It's only the female pigs that get this lucky treatment; male hogs are housed in group pens, albeit very crowded ones. "Smithfield says they're committed to animal care, but we're not seeing any practical actions to indicate that," Pacelle said.
In its response, Smithfield calls the whole affair a "possible animal abuse incident" and says that they have restarted the process of converting some sow farms to "group housing arrangements."
But the fact that Smithfield has made almost no progress in the past three years towards getting rid of inhumane gestation crates makes a mockery of its claims that Murphy-Brown has an "industry-leading animal welfare management program." And it doesn't jive with assertions, still up on its Web site, that the company's own research has concluded that crates could be replaced with group pens without any long-term problems or cost increases.
Smithfield CEO Larry Pope told the Washington Post in 2007 that he was excited to be getting rid of hog confinement systems:
Working with our customers, who have made their views known on the issue of gestation stalls, we are pleased to be taking this precedent-setting step.Like cages for egg-laying hens, gestation crates are a gruesome and largely indefensible symbol of factory farming at its worst. And they're on their way out. Europe forbids their use and seven states have outlawed them, although none of these states are big hog producers. Pacelle says that Cargill, the country's second largest pork producer, is following through on its promise to eliminate the crates, moving 50% of its pregnant hogs to group pens.
Image from HSUS