You Reap What You Sow: Top Food Companies Ban Cruel Gestation Crates

"Their suffering is intense, widespread, expanding, systematic and socially sanctioned. And the victims are unable to organize in defence of their own interests." -- Henry Spira, founder, Animal Rights International

Imagine being strapped to an airplane seat for your entire life. That's how renowned animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, Ph.D., a doctor of animal science and professor at Colorado State University, describes a breeding pig's experience on a factory farm. These poor sows spend the majority of their miserable lives in gestation crates, small metal cages (7 feet by 2 feet) that are barely big enough to fit the animal's body. This extreme confinement does not allow her any room to stretch or turn around, let alone do any of a pig's natural behaviors, like foraging for roots, mushrooms, plants and insects for food. They will never see the sun. They will never feel grass under their feet. In the United States alone, around 4.5 million pigs suffer in these crates for virtually their entire lives.


In an email, Gene Baur, the president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a farm animal rescue organization with operations in California and New York, writes:

"I've had the horror of walking through massive dairy farms, cattle feed lots, poultry warehouses, and just about every other type of factory farm—and each one haunts my memory. But factory pig farms are uniquely appalling. In these massive operations, pregnant pig after pregnant pig is lined up in cramped gestation crates—just two feet wide. They cannot turn around, lie down comfortably, or take more than a step forward or back for nearly their entire lives...The earsplitting cries that come from pigs imprisoned in gestation crates would break your heart. Just think of Julia—a pregnant sow who we recently rescued from horrific cruelty at a factory farm. Her tortured screams were caught on tape as workers kicked and beat her, burned her with an electrified prod, and dragged her by her ears as they moved her from one harsh confinement crate to another."

This inherently cruel type of confinement has been used by large-scale pork producers for the past three decades, but the practice has come under considerable fire in the court of public opinion in recent years, thanks to public awareness campaigns and petitions launched by animal welfare groups, most notably the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which has been fighting to eliminate these cages from the nation's food industry since 2002. Nine states have banned gestation crates: Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, Arizona, California, Florida, Oregon, Maine and Rhode Island. New Jersey recently passed an anti-gestation crate bill through its house and senate; Governor Christie is expected to sign it into law. Bills are currently pending in New York and Massachusetts.

"This decision from New Jersey's legislature is further evidence that these cruel systems have no future," said Bruce Friedrich, senior director for strategic initiatives at Farm Sanctuary. "Cramming animals into crates so small that they can't even turn around is horribly abusive. These systems have no place in a just society."


But it's not just state lawmakers who have responded to concerned voters. Showing the influence that people in a free market system wield with their pocketbooks, the private sector has responded strongly to the wishes of ethical consumers. In the past year, many leading food companies issued announcements saying they would call on their suppliers to phase out the inhumane practice.

Whole Foods (WFM), Chipotle (CMG), Wendy's (WEN), Safeway (SWY), Burger King (BKW), ConAgra Foods (CAG), Compass Group (CPG), Kroger (KR), Dunkin' Donuts (DNKN) and Chili's (EAT) have all made public commitments to phase out the crates from their supply chains. Cargill, a privately held multinational, is already 50 percent crate-free. ARAMARK, a leading privately held global food services company, has committed to phasing out gestation crates from its American supply chain by 2017.

"Working in partnership with our suppliers, ARAMARK is taking steps to help move the entire food industry toward improved conditions for animals," said Kathy Cacciola, ARAMARK's senior director of environmental sustainability, in a joint press release with HSUS released earlier this month, noting the company's "long-standing commitment to responsible business practices in the industries we serve."

That commitment was recently recognized when the firm was named the 2012 recipient of the Henry Spira Humane Corporate Progress Award for working to improve the conditions of farm animals confined to crates and cages in its supply chain. The award is named in honor of the late Henry Spira, a Belgian-American animal rights advocate who founded Animal Rights International in 1974 and is known for his pioneering collaborative approach that brought together major corporations and animal welfare activists toward a shared vision of compassion for animals.

"ARAMARK's announcement is further evidence that cruel gestation crates don't have a future in the pork industry," said Josh Balk, director of food policy for HSUS. "Immobilizing an animal for her entire life in a cage so small she can't even turn around is simply out of step with how Americans feel farm animals ought to be treated."


In February, the anti-gestation crate campaign got a huge boost when McDonald's (MCD)—one of the food industry's 800-pound gorillas and fourth-largest employer in the world—announced in a joint press release with HSUS its decision (after years of talks with HSUS) to ban gestation crates from its supply chain. The fast food giant said it "wants to see the end of sow confinement in gestation stalls in our U.S. supply chain," adding that "there are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows."

That landmark announcement followed just two months after Smithfield Foods (SFD), the world's largest pork producer, announced its recommitment of its pledge to phase out the crates in its company-owned operations by 2017, and just a week after Hormel Foods (HRL) announced that "all Hormel Foods-owned farms will be 100 percent group sow housing before 2018," adding, "Hormel Foods believes that animal care and employee safety are noncompetitive issues and we are willing to share our best practices with our suppliers."

Mark Bittman, a New York Times food columnist, called the announcement by McDonald's "to date the most significant step" in the battle against gestation crates. The main argument for keeping individual gestation crates over group sow housing—to protect sows from fighting—Bittman calls "nonsense," suggesting that the real reason is (big surprise) financial: "Switching from gestation crates to group sow housing is more labor- and capital-intensive, requiring changes that will take money and time."


More ethical practices in handling breeding sows are also spreading north of the border. In April, the Retail Council of Canada announced that all eight of the largest Canadian supermarket chains—Walmart Canada (WMT), Costco Canada (COST), Metro (MRU), Loblaw (L), Safeway Canada (SWY), Sobeys (EMP.A), Co-op Atlantic and Federated Co-operatives—will phase out gestation crates from their supply systems over the next nine years.

"Increasingly, stakeholder expectations have…been changing and industry is being encouraged to shift towards alternative housing practices," the council said in a statement, adding that "sows should be housed in an environment where their pregnancy, health and well-being are taken into highest consideration."

Though its Canadian division agreed to phase out the crates, Walmart still remains one of the big holdouts and has not joined its competitors in banning gestation crates across its entire supply chain. In August, at the behest of the non-profit animal welfare organization Mercy for Animals (MFA), several Hollywood stars—including Ryan Gosling, Kristen Bell, Zooey Deschanel, Emily Deschanel, Kim Basinger, Ed Begley Jr., James Cromwell and Loretta Swit—signed a letter sent to Walmart CEO Mike Duke that said, in part:

"While Walmart tells its customers they can 'Save Money, Live Better,' the pork sold in your stores comes from pigs whose lives couldn't possibly be any worse. As world-renowned animal behaviorist Dr. Jonathan Balcombe puts it: 'Gestation crates are unremitting hell on earth.'

"Inside tiny gestation crates barely larger than their own bodies, these intelligent and social animals never get to walk, run, root in the soil, see the sun, breathe fresh air, or do nearly anything that comes naturally to them. Driven mad from boredom and stress, these poor animals have nothing to do, hour after hour, day after day, but bite the bars of their cages."


"The public is just not going to accept sow stalls," said Dr. Grandin, who has advised many companies on animal welfare, including McDonald's.

Though a future where there are no longer any gestation crates may be within reach, it is only one piece of the larger issue of animal welfare on industrial farms. Knowing what goes on behind those walls is a critical step in educating the public, but it is not enough. Proponents of the so-called "ag gag" bills that have cropped up around the country want to make the recording of undercover video of animal abuse at factory farms a felony crime. In 2013, ten states have introduced anti-whistleblower bills that want to keep American consumers in the dark in regard to what happens to animals before they end up on their dinner plates: Arkansas, California, Indiana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wyoming and Vermont.

"I think increased sight and visibility are necessary, but not sufficient for the kinds of deep changes that are needed," said New School political science professor Timothy Pachirat, whose recent book, Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight, was based on his experience working at a slaughter plant in Nebraska, where he worked for six months. "We also need to create spaces for meaningful interactions and relationships between consumers and farm animals and between consumers and immigrant workers that are not just about the revelation of existing horrific practices but that also point to what might be possible, in a positive, constructive sense."

To be sure, ending the use of gestation crates does not eliminate the inhumane treatment of breeding pigs raised in factory farms. It just means that their lives will be less miserable. As Huffington Post user Vegan Girl noted in a comment on a recent article about gestation crates:

"While there may be a room for a difficult and academic discussion about eating meat, there is no doubt that the status quo is savagely cruel and unacceptable. It is every person's obligation to become educated on this and boycott meat that was produced with such suffering of sentient creatures. There is no excuse for supporting this business model. Buy local, buy organic if you don't want to go vegan."

If we really are what we eat, then we won't know ourselves fully unless we know exactly what we put into our bodies—and exactly how it got to our plate. If meat eaters had a choice, I bet they would rather eat bacon that came from a pig who lived a normal, natural and relatively happy life than one who lived a life of pain and suffering within the hellish confines of a factory farm. There is still a long way to go, but the increase in legal and corporate bans on gestation crates is a significant step in the right direction.


1. Gene Baur. Farm Sanctuary. Email received September 19, 2012.
2. Ibid.
3. Tommy Dean. New Jersey Legislature Passes Gestation Crate Ban. VegNews Daily. May 15, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.
4. Wayne Pacelle. Talk Back: A Good Week for Pigs, Chimpanzees, Bears, and Hounds. Humane Society of the United States. September 28, 2012. Accessed May 24, 2013.
5. Humane Society of the United States. ARAMARK Recognized by Humane Society of the United States for Improving Animal Welfare. May 14, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.
6. Ibid.
7. Josh Balk. Humane Society of the United States. Email received May 24, 2013.
8. McDonald's to Require Pork Suppliers to Stop Using Inhumane CratesFebruary 14, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.
9. Hormel Foods. Overview of Hog Operations. May 17, 2012. Accessed May 29, 2013.
10. Mark Bittman. The New York Times. February 13, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.
11. Humane Society International/Canada and the Humane Society of the United States. Every Leading Canadian Supermarket Chain Takes Stand against Controversial Pig Cages. April 29, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.
12. Mercy for Animals. PR Newswire via Bloomberg News. August 24, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.
13. Philip Brasher. Pork Producers Phase Out Use Of Sow Stalls. Roll Call. December 6, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.
14. Humane Society of America. Anti-Whistleblower Bills Hide Factory-Farming Abuses from the Public. April 16, 2013. Accessed May 29, 2013.
15. Wayne Pacelle. Inside the Slaughterhouse: My Interview with Timothy Pachirat - Part 2. Humane Society of the United States. April 30, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.
16. Vegan Girl. Comment on Huffington Post website article, In Gestation Crate Debate, Bon Appetit Scuffle With Pork Publication Reveals Competing Interests. March 21, 2013. Accessed May 24, 2013.

image: A sow confined in a gestation crate. Image taken during an undercover investigation conducted by the Humane Society of the United States at the Seaboard Foods and Prestage Farms in Goodwell, Oklahoma, November 2011. (credit: Humane Society of the United States)