Factory-farmed pigs lead a grim life. Breeding sows are kept locked inside gestation crates for the entire duration of their pregnancies—about four months. These enclosures, which are illegal in eight U.S. states, are so small the animals can’t even turn around. Once the pigs give birth and their piglets are weaned, the animals are inseminated again and again over a period of three years, after which time they’re typically killed. It’s a brutal and largely unsanitary process. And in America’s multi-billion-dollar pork industry, it’s standard.
But there’s reason to hope that pigs are making progress toward greener pastures. Mistreated porkers are increasingly finding some unusual allies—fast-food restaurants.
Burrito behemoth Chipotle recently highlighted factory-farmed pigs’ plight with an ad during this year’s Grammy Awards. The commercial drew national media attention to an important message: Support local, small-scale, chemical-free farming rather than the heavily mechanized methods used by most major producers. The ad aligns with some of the philosophies the company lives by: Since 2001, Chipotle has sourced 100 percent of its pork from gestation-crate-free producers as part of the company’s “Food With Integrity” campaign.
In today’s food economy, humane practices aren’t just good for pigs—they’re good press, too. It took less than 24 hours for Chipotle’s campaign to impact fast-food pork well outside the bounds of its signature foil-wrapped burrito. Animal welfare organizations like the Humane Society have long pressured big producers like McDonald's to reject gestation crates. The day after Chipotle ran its touching Grammy ad, McDonald’s—long regarded as one of the worst players in the food industry—announced a plan requiring all of its pork suppliers go gestation-crate-free too. And just last week, Bon Appetit Management Company, a food service provider that operates 400 cafes across the country, announced a comprehensive sustainable food initiative that involves switching to 100 percent gestation-crate-free pork by 2015.
Promises from these three companies and others are good news for both pigs and conscientious consumers. Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Bon Appetit Management Company are such major players in the food world that their decisions will ultimately impact even those consumers who don’t think at all about the conditions of the animals they’re eating. Intentionally or not, the fast food industry’s push could irrevocably overhaul an industry that’s been notoriously hard to shake up. Some major pork producers like Hormel and Smithfield have even committed to switch to gestation-crate-free facilities by 2017. (Smithfield had previously promised to change its practices and later reneged.)
Cue the Big Pork backlash: Not everyone is ready to follow Chipotle’s lead. Blake Hurst, a former hog farmer and current president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, published an op-ed in The New York Times last week titled “Don’t Presume to Know a Pig’s Mind.” Hurst suggested that pigs are happier confined indoors than rooting around outside in the sunshine and mud, then shared this nugget of industry spin: “These crates do restrict pigs’ movements, but farmers use them to control the amount of feed pregnant sows consume. When hogs are grouped in pens together, aggressive sows eat too much and submissive sows too little, and they also get in violent fights at feeding time. The only other ways to prevent these problems are complicated, expensive or dangerous to the pigs.”
The reality is that the pork industry is one of the most inhumane sectors of American agriculture. Gestation crates are just plain cruel [PDF]. Pregnant pigs can barely move, let alone engage in normal animal behavior like rooting, foraging, and nestbuilding. The stress of confinement, unsanitary conditions, and boredom leads animals to engage in repetitive behaviors like head swaying and bar biting. These conditions also contribute to factory farms’ generally nasty environments. According to the Humane Society of the United States [PDF], pigs kept in gestation crates are prone to conditions like urinary tract infections, weakened bones, lameness, and overgrown hooves. Plus, when producers keep hundreds or thousands of animals packed into tight quarters littered with excrement, blood, and dangerous conditions, it creates a breeding ground for bacteria and disease. Factory farm operators combat these health issues by feeding their animals a steady diet of antibiotics, a “solution” linked to the spread of drug-resistant diseases like MRSA in both animals and people. A whopping 80 percent of America’s antibiotics are used by the meat industry—about 29 million pounds of drugs per year.
Worse, these conditions are unnecessary. If Chipotle—a company that made more than $2.3 billion in 2011—can locate enough gestation-crate-free pork to fill its wildly popular carnitas burritos, it’s clear that producing pigs outside of cruel enclosures is not only possible, it’s preferable. Fast food’s adoption of gestation-crate-free pork won’t prompt Big Ag to abandon its pig factories and let pigs roam lush pastures. But the trend might push producers to switch to group housing, a method in which several dozen sows are grouped together in indoor pens. These kinds of enclosures aren’t the best-case scenario, but they allow pigs room to move around, socialize, and have some semblance of a quality of life. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a hoof in the right direction.