Goodbye, pig crates?

Thinking outside the sow box

October 16, 2012

If you’ve ever paid attention to animal-welfare issues on America’s factory farms, you’ve almost certainly heard about the gestation crates used for female pigs. The crates are, by definition, confining, and animal-rights and food-politics activists would like to see them disappear.

Earlier this fall, several major food purveyors — including Dunkin' Donuts, ConAgra, and the restaurant chain Brinker International — announced that they would phase out the purchase of pork products from farms that used gestation crates, joining a number of fast-food chains and supermarket companies in saying goodbye to crates.

The pork industry hastened to defend crating, saying that the practice kept pigs from fighting and encouraged larger litters. The New York Times noted that the proposed phaseouts might account for a fifth of the pork produced nationwide, but was skeptical that consumers would be willing to pay a premium for more humanely raised meat:

Glynn Tonsor, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, said that household economics often trumped ethics. Voters have overwhelmingly supported ballot measures to prohibit keeping chickens in cages, for example, but sales of cage-free eggs, which cost about 50 percent more than regular eggs, account for less than 5 percent of the overall market, Professor Tonsor said.

Which puts pig farmers in a tough position: If they change the way they raise their pigs, increasing their costs and decreasing their productivity, they’ll need consumers to pay a premium in order to stay in business. Are all those big companies saying no to crates going to be enough to make the change pay off?

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