Exclusive Interview with Kristie Middleton, Humane Society of the United States

Millions of breeding pigs are trapped in crates so small that they can't even turn around—for virtually their entire lives. It is an extreme type of confinement that has been in use for decades, but a growing number of consumers and businesses want to end this inhumane practice

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Papa John's (NASDAQ: PZZA) is the latest in a string of companies to announce a ban on the use of cruel gestation crates in their supply chain. Used by factory farms, these crates keep millions of mother pigs in such extreme confinement that they cannot even turn around for virtually their entire lives. "Due to the duration and severity of their confinement, these pigs' suffering is among the worst of all factory-farmed animals," according to the Humane Society of the United States.

But the tide is turning, as consumers are becoming more aware of where their food comes from and companies are responding. With their announcement last month, Papa John's, the third largest take-out and delivery pizza restaurant chain in the United States behind Pizza Hut (NYSE: YUM) and Domino's Pizza (NYSE: DPZ), joins other major food companies that have announced similar bans, like Tim Horton's (NYSE: THI), McDonald's (NYSE: MCD), Burger King (NYSE: BKW) and Wendy's (NASDAQ: WEN).

I had a chance to talk with Kristie Middleton, Food Policy Manager at the Humane Society of the United States, about Papa John's decision and the future of these inhumane confinement crates.

First of all, I want to say congratulations on this great news from Papa John's. That is fantastic.

Thanks, we're really excited about it!

What exactly is a gestation crate?

Gestation crates are cages that are around two feet wide by seven feet long that are used to confine breeding pigs. The mother pigs are confined in these crates for the duration of their pregnancy, which lasts about four months. They're put into another crate to give birth and then they are re-inseminated and put back into the gestation crate. And this cycle continues for about four years, so it amounts to virtual immobilization for these intelligent and sensitive animals for their entire lives.

How long have they been in use?

Since the 1950s, but they really became popularized in the 1980s with the goal of fitting as many pigs inside one warehouse space as possible. But increasingly, what we're finding is that mother pigs can successfully breed and produce litters that are healthy when they are housed in large group housing facilities that allow them to engage in important natural behaviors.

And what's worse is that this practice is being done to very smart and social animals.

Pigs are highly intelligent animals. Some scientists say they are smarter than dogs. They even perform better on intelligence tests than some species of primates. They're also very social animals, so confining them in these crates that prevent them from even turning around for their entire lives is very detrimental to both their physical and their psychological well-being.

I read that pigs are among the smartest animals, about as smart as a three-year-old human child.

Most people are surprised to hear that. But anyone who has spent time around a pig knows that they really appreciate a good meal, but they're also very curious and very intelligent animals. And that's one reason that we are finding more and more consumers opposed to the way that they are being treated. When they find out that they are confined in these crates, they are rejecting the notion that these animals are mere commodities and they want to see them treated better.

And businesses have responded.

More than 60 companies have now enacted policies calling on their suppliers to end the use of gestation crates in their supply chain. And we're also hearing from more and more scientists, including Dr. Temple Grandin who I know you've written about in the past, one of the foremost experts in farm animal care issues, and she is vehemently opposed to the use of gestation crates, likening them to people living their entire lives in an airplane seat. And as a frequent flyer, I can tell you that it's pretty uncomfortable to spend five or six hours in an airplane seat, so I can't imagine living like that for my entire life.

Have you seen gestation crates in use?

Years ago, I visited an agricultural school gestation crate facility. After spending time with the trapped pigs there it further solidified my sadness of so many animals being deprived of the most important things, like the ability to move around freely, to choose with whom they want to spend time.

And group housing facilities will enable them to do those things?

Absolutely. The pigs can move around freely. They are sometimes provided with straw, oftentimes bales of hay, so they have something to do which is to explore their surroundings—an activity that’s important for them. And they can also choose if they want to spend time with others, rather than having to be confined right next to a pig whom they might not necessarily like.

What kind of research is going on in regard to housing breeding pigs?

There is a veterinarian working on gestation crate alternatives at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Tom Parsons, whose crate-free system we visited earlier this year with a group of HSUS corporate partners to see how the animals there are raised and how they're faring in a crate-free environment. It was really interesting to see. He's done a lot of research on this issue and has found that a crate-free system can reduce cost and maintain productivity. There are also inventive ways for animals to get their daily ration of food in these crate-free environments, like something called "electronic sow feeding operation," where the sow has an electronic collar or even a chip, because they were finding that pigs, being as smart as they are, figured out how to steal each other's collars so they could get another serving of food. So some are using microchips instead. So they go in, it detects who's in line for food and they get their food. If they need medicine, they get their medicine, and out they go. It is amazing once you get to see these pigs as individuals and not as a group, as they all have their individual personalities.

It's easy to see how consumers who find out about this kind of animal cruelty would be more selective about what companies they patronize. How are farmers responding and what is the cost implication if a farmer wants to change from gestation crates to group housing?

In terms of the cost implication, there have been a number of studies that have found the conversion can be economical. One, for example, is by Iowa State University, which is the state school for the nation's top pork-producing state. They did a two-and-a-half-year study looking at the economic comparison of gestation crate system and a group housing system and they actually found that they could perform better, in fact saving money, the weaned pig cost was 11% less in the group housing setting that the weaned pig cost from the gestation crate stall confinement system. So they can save money and they also can win consumer favor. Smithfield (NYSE: SFD), which is the nation's—and the world's, for that matter—largest pork producing company, announced in 2007 that it planned to eliminate gestation crates on all of its company-owned breeding facilities. Hormel Food (NYSE: HRL), another of the nation's largest pork-producing companies, has also announced an end to the use of gestation crates. So it can be done, and in fact, we're hearing more and more from consumers that they don't want to support companies that confine animals in situations where they can't even take more than a step forward or backward or even turn around—for their entire lives. 

How many breeding pigs are currently confined in gestation crates?

About 4.5 million. Some of the companies that we've worked with on making an announcement that they want to move away from gestation crates have timelines that are set as early as 2015, 2017, 2022, so we anticipate seeing that number decline very rapidly as we approach those deadlines. 

Why are some of these timelines so far in the future?

To people who care about animals, they do seem very far off, and they certainly are. Papa John's goal is to eliminate gestation crates by 2022. So nearly ten years from now. But that's done in order to allow farmers the time to convert to the group housing setting. It was also done keeping in mind that's around the time that these existing gestation stalls begin deteriorating, so the farmers would naturally need to create a new housing situation anyway in that timeframe. So what we're doing is we're looking for solutions that work for companies, consumers and farmers. 

Has HSUS been working directly with Papa John's?

We've been working with them for several years now. A lot of companies didn't have any animal welfare policies prior to hearing from us. Until recently, animal welfare hasn't been on the radar for many food companies. But now, with more than 60 companies saying they want to end the use of gestation crates, we were able to get Papa John's ear and they were very receptive to working with us and we were really excited to hear that they want to see an end to gestation crates in their supply chain.

Are you working with other groups on this issue?

We tend to work individually with companies, though there are a number of other national animal protection organizations that are working toward ending the use of gestation crates. We work with companies in a way that they are comfortable with. We ensure their privacy and any conversations that we have with them—unless they want them to be made public—we keep them private so with respect to the work that we do with Papa John's, it was all done through behind-the-scenes meetings and communications. 

You're working with pork purchasers to get gestation crates out of their supply chains. You're working with the public, getting them to sign petitions. Are you also working with farmers?

We are, and there are some farmers who we have good relationships with and others we're still trying to win favor with to recognize that this is an issue that companies and consumers care about. We have a farmer on our staff who works on rural outreach. As these large-scale factory farms have grown and taken over the landscape, they have gained control of our food system. It's not just the animals who are suffering, but it's also family farms. We have seen the meat consumption in the United States grow while the number of farmers producing that meat vastly scale down. So we have a staff member who is working to help ensure the success of family farms that are already gestation crate-free and enabling the animals to live on the land as they should be able to. So we work with both large food companies like Smithfield and Hormel and family farms.

What about legal bans on gestation crates?

Currently, nine states—California, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island and Oregon—have passed laws making it illegal to confine breeding pigs in gestation crates. Some of those laws are already in effect and others are being phased in. There are some laws, such as the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, that require certain minimal considerations be given to insure that livestock be rendered unconscious prior to slaughter. There are other laws that protect animals during transport. But there are no federal laws that protect any farm animal while they are on the farm.

Do you think that farm animal protection laws will remain a state-to-state consideration as opposed to getting federal protection?

That's the sense we have right now. We have been working with United Egg Producers on an issue of similar confinement that happens to egg-laying hens who are confined in battery cages. Rather than being confined individually like the breeding pigs, they are confined in cages with five to eight other birds where they remain for about 18 months on these wire floors, unable to engage in any important natural behaviors. So we've been working with the egg industry trade organization to try to create a baseline of protection for those egg-laying hens. We have not been able to get any traction on that so far, but we've made some progress. Many of the gestation crate laws that have passed have been in states like California, Arizona and Florida, where we've been able to work with the ballot initiative process, getting citizens to go to the polls to vote. In some states, we've been able to avoid having to go all the way to that process by working with legislators to introduce these bills. In California in 2008, we were able to go to the polls and get citizens to vote and we received 63% of the vote—more "YES" votes than any other citizen initiative in the state's history to support California Prop 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, to ban the use of gestation crates, battery cages and veal crates.

Isn't New Jersey considering this ban as well?

Yes. In fact, we just recently learned that we are delaying the vote on a veto override. In the spring of this year, the New Jersey legislature overwhelmingly passed S. 1921, a bill that would have banned the use of gestation crates in the state, supported by 91% of New Jersey voters with overwhelming support in both the assembly and the senate. But unfortunately, Governor Christie did not enact that bill so we have been working with the senator who introduced it to override his veto. Last month, we were two votes short of what we needed for a super-majority and so we did not move forward with the vote.  For any of your readers who are in the New Jersey area, they could contact their assembly member and senators to let them know they would like to see them support the veto override on SB 1921, which we hope will called up for a vote soon.

What companies are the major holdouts? I think Walmart is on that list, right?

Walmart (NYSE: WMT) is a company that we would love to see announce an end to the use of gestation crates. Obviously, they have lots of purchasing power. We know there has been a lot of consumer pressure on the company and we're hopeful that they will soon make an announcement. We've been working to get Tyson (NYSE: TSN), which is one the nation's largest pork-producing companies, to announce an end to gestation crates. It is the supplier to many of the companies that have already announced they want to see an end to their use. It seems like it would make good business sense for them and in fact we have filed shareholder resolutions in the past to encourage them to move in that direction but they are still holding out at this time. We hope that through this and consumer pressure, as well as pressure from their corporate customers, that they will soon be joining the ranks of these other 60 companies that are ending the use of gestation crates. 

How long has the HSUS been working on this issue?

The Humane Society really took this on as a major campaign about ten years ago. The Smithfield announcement in 2007 put the issue on the map for a lot of companies. And then in 2012, McDonald's became the first major company to announce that it wanted an end to the use of gestation crates in its supply chain. It called on its suppliers to announce what their plans were, and that's after the Humane Society worked with McDonald's for many years on its animal welfare policies. There's certainly been a concerted effort on behalf of the HSUS to get companies and legislative policy against the use of gestation crates. 

Increased awareness of food industry practices among the general public has also generated a powerful shift in consumer sentiment not only regarding how our food is produced, but the effect on health and the environment.

Films like Food, Inc., really gave many people their first look behind the scenes of the food systems. And also books like Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, Mark Bittman's Food Matters and Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, which showed how animals are confined in these concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). These works have generated a lot of consumer support for moving away from these intensive confinement facilities and factory farms.

What can a consumer do if they want to move away from eating food made from animals living under inhumane conditions?

The HSUS supports the "Three R's": reduce, refine and replace. Firstly, we need to reduce the amount of animal products we consume because of the sheer number of animals being raised and slaughtered in the United States. Even if every American wanted to purchase meat from a farmer raising animals in a more humane fashion, there simply wouldn't be that amount available. So as a nation, we need to reduce the amount of meat that we're eating. Secondly, we need to refine our meat purchases, buying from suppliers who use higher animal welfare systems. Try to purchase from a local farmer who will allow you to come and visit their facility and see if you're comfortable with the way that they animals are being raised. And finally, replace meat with plant-based alternatives.

What would you recommend to someone thinking about reducing their meat consumption?

Check out Meatless Monday, which encourages people to go meat-free just one day a week. It's been very popular internationally. It was started by the Monday Campaigns and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as a way to improve public health and reduce chronic preventable disease. And it's got great environmental benefits.

A lot of pigs, cows and chickens would probably support Meatless Monday.

If every American went meat-free just one day a week, more than a billion animals would be spared from factory farming.


About Kristie Middleton

Kristie Middleton is the food policy manager for The Humane Society of the United States. She has successfully worked with dozens of corporations, hospitals, and other institutions to improve the plight of farm animals through humane-minded purchasing programs, and has worked with some of the nation’s largest school districts to implement Meatless Monday. She has been a vegan for the past 16 years.

About the Humane Society of the United States

The Humane Society of the United States is the nation’s largest animal protection organization. Since 1954, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education, and hands-on programs, rescuing and caring for tens of thousands of animals each year. Their primary mission is to prevent cruelty before it occurs, seeking a humane and sustainable world for all animals—a world that will also benefit people.

For more information, visit http://www.humanesociety.org. 

image: Humane Society of the United States