What will you do when HSUS shows up next door?

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Thursday morning while checking my messages, a news release from The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS, not to be confused with your local animal shelter) showed up in my Facebook timeline. Their latest move in an escapade to change the face of livestock farms includes Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.

The press release announced that Cracker Barrel will phase out pork products from suppliers using gestation crates in favor of group housing for sows.

“These plans take into consideration a thorough review of studies that have investigated consumer preferences regarding breeding pigs being housed in groups rather than individual crates, and economic analyses, such as one study by Iowa State University, in the nation’s largest hog-producing state, that have documented lower production costs for pork suppliers who use group housing.

“We’re seeing an evolution in Americans’ awareness and attitudes regarding meat produced with higher animal welfare in mind,” said Vance Fouraker, Cracker Barrel’s Vice President of Strategic Sourcing. “We recognize that gestation crates may not be the best method to meet higher animal welfare goals and are committed to evolving to sustainable alternatives.””

HSUS has been on the war path over the past few years, demanding better housing for both poultry and pork production systems – which includes gestation crates for swine and battery cages for poultry. Animal rights supporters have continually called these housing situations cruel and in dire need of elimination.

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The announcement from Cracker Barrel follows the folding of several other food chains, groceries, and restaurants over the past few years, who are bowing down to the demands of the Animal Rights groups. HSUS lists these places as McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Compass Group (the top food service company in the world), Burger King, Sonic, Safeway, Harris Teeter, Winn-Dixie, Carl’s Jr., Hardee’s, and Quiznos, and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers, Chipotle, Whole Foods, Wolfgang Puck, along with many other businesses.

To be up front, I’m neither a pork or poultry farmer. I’ve been in or talked with farmers from both styles of production. I trust their judgement to provide proper care for their animals just the same as I do for my cattle.

To learn more about pork farming, check out these farmers – Chris Chinn (Missouri), Meggie (Ohio), Minnesota Pork Producers, and more on these blog posts.

I am not suggesting there are not improvements to be made in animal production systems. Have the systems kept pace with changes in animal size and genetics? There are rotten people out there who have mistreated animals, and I when and if I encounter these situations, I won’t have a kind reaction. But we cannot allow those individuals to represent the entire animal agriculture community.

(Photo Credit:Real Farmwives of America)

Maybe there are changes to be made, but one thing I do know – I wish dearly that these food service companies and restaurants would turn to the people who best understand the needs of animals – farmers, ranchers, animal scientists – instead of folding to the demands of an animal rights group with an agenda to wipe out animal agriculture by spreading misinformation and gaining public support by using sad puppy dog faces to appeal to emotions. Domino’s Pizza recently made an example by turning down an HSUS-endorsed proposition, choosing instead to turn to animal professionals for advice. It wasn’t about their choosing to stick with gestation crates, but rather their choice to turn to someone who knows more about the subject.

Animal agriculture needs to be proactive and identify subjects that may concern our customers – This includes us beef cattle farmers! – before HSUS steps in and tells us how they think we should farm. Are there things we can improve and/or that need to be more transparent to the customer? Improving the dialogue is not always about the science or reasoning, we need to be able to describe things in layman’s terms and be receptive to customers’ questions.

We can continue to stand by and watch as this group runs over animal agriculture or we can stand up for agriculture. Farmers and Ranchers, animal scientists and researchers are the best source for understanding what an animal needs. These people live the life every day, working one-on-one with the animals and spend years studying the animals to understand them better. I’ll agree, there may be improvements to be made, and we can and do make mistakes. Will you stand up and share your story and listen to customer concerns before it’s too late?

What will you do when HSUS shows up next door?

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  1. Great post Ryan! Couldn’t agree with you more. I’ve been saying this from the get go. Its soo frustrating when things like this happen! We must be proactive – that is the bottom line. Thank you for making this point!

  2. Very frustrating – I’m having a hard time finding a place to eat that I’m not boycotting! It’s all about education and I appreciate the info you’ve shared. How do we get in front of HSUS to the food companies board rooms to get them the correct info?

  3. Recognised “welfare schemes” such as the RSPCA/Farmer partnership Freedom Foods trademarked products have driven public acceptance of farmer led independantly monitored schemes which allow premiums to be charged for stock from scheme members. A quarterly audit by a vet and an animal welfare officer is the main monitoring program with possible un announced checks by the welfare officer.

  4. In the review of information did they only consider HSUS research? Would love for some companies to talk to both sides on this issue and then do research about what their customers prioritize. Include all the factors too.

    1. I can only find this information from the HSUS release. Would love to find some information from Cracker Barrel about this as well.

      You make a good point. It would be a positive thing if companies would be vocal with agriculture on decisions like this.

  5. This is what gets me… ““We’re seeing an evolution in Americans’ awareness and attitudes regarding meat produced with higher animal welfare in mind,” said Vance Fouraker, Cracker Barrel’s Vice President of Strategic Sourcing. “We recognize that gestation crates may not be the best method to meet higher animal welfare goals and are committed to evolving to sustainable alternatives.””

    Do not say that you are phasing out gestation crates with higher animal welfare in mind! If you house pigs together rather than separately they will fight and injure each other – how is that better welfare? I don’t understand? I recently wrote a post on this too you might want to check out…


    1. And what about free range chickens? Chickens will eat just about anything including people. They will also peck to death other chickens they are with. Pigs will eat small children. And don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. I know of these things happening. Sows will lay on their young which results in death and I could go on. Is it better for us to let them have their freedom to kill each other? There is no excuse for being cruel to animals and most farmers take good care of theirs. Livestock, as well as the land, will not produce if not cared for properly. I’d like to see these so called animal welfare groups spend their energy, and money, on seeing to it that people in this world are fed well and treated humanely first.

    2. I appreciate your post Ryan because you suggest that ag producers consider doing more self-analysis and self-regulation as a matter of practicality.

      I am not in the agriculture business. Food and animals are life-long passions of mine. Today, my diet is mainly vegetarian; the exceptions are fish, eggs, and milk products. The big reason, initially, that I changed my diet was that I was overweight and unhappy with myself. Losing sixty pounds taught me that my food choices impact my body and health. Gradually my awareness of food’s other impacts motivated me to choose differently. I’m neither 100% consistent nor %100 rational in what I choose. For instance, I almost always buy Certified Humane eggs and organic milk but rarely organic cheese.

      For three years in a row, I have been a volunteer “citizen-lobbyist” for the HSUS on their “Humane Lobby Day” in Albany, New York. I agree that many of the supporters of HSUS and other animal rights’ organizations, including myself, lack experience of the ag business. Many of us, however, do make an effort to educate ourselves on pros and cons of an issue. I’m here reading your #agproud blog because I want to acquaint myself with the farmer’s point of view and the reasons behind it.

      Case in point, at the most recent Lobby Day, another volunteer asked me if I knew why anyone would argue for gestation crates, that is, were there any decent reasons for their use. I told her that I gathered from some reading on the web that the sow could injure the piglets and that sows had rivalries with one another. The next day she sent me an enthusiastic thank-you for sharing this link: Changing From Sow Gestation Crates to Pens: Problem or Opportunity?.

      What I also got out of that article the sows’ fighting is made worse by close proximity: nowhere for a retreating sow to retreat. My thinking, still in progress, is that gestation crates are a symptom, not the disease nor its cure. The ‘disease’ isn’t really a disease, either. It’s more of a complex syndrome of commodity prices, the allocation of farm subsidies, corporate indifference, unrealistic consumers, concentration in the meat packing industry, control of distribution networks, government safety regulations with unintended consequences … all of the factors that for a long while made indoor, close-proximity pork production seem like the best, most efficient way. Am I heading in the right direction?

      If removing the crates is the only change to the system, it’s probably not going to have the beneficial outcome on animal welfare that most “animal rights people” or “outraged consumers” want. The problem is, isn’t it aways, that change has to start somewhere. My hope is that as you suggest people with the know-how get together soon and invent a smart solution — at least a smart start towards one — and that consumers, activists and politicians are smart enough to recognize it as such.

      I bet you all in ag production will be surprised to know that at the start of my first year as a Wharton MBA student, we studied a business case about putting contact lens on chickens as an alternative to de-beaking. I doubt any of us had questioned or really understood the phrase “pecking order” before then! Later in that first semester there was an operations management case about sorting and packing cranberries. I think that getting more ag-related business cases into business schools would be an excellent way to give business people, many of whom will be leaders in our economy and all of whom will be consumers, a grounding in what it takes to get food on our plates.

      I’d be very interested in a business case on the relative costs and benefits of various animal welfare certifications: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, etc. I’d like to compare the application process, the marketing support provided by the certifier and the ROI of the certification to the producer in terms of price point, sales volume and market access & share. I would hope to find objective support for specific practices of humane animal husbandry, that is, some proof of what commenter Caryl said: “Livestock, as well as the land, will not produce if not cared for properly.”

      1. First Leslie, I want to apologize for this not posting sooner, it somehow ended up in my spam folder (I think it was from the link and a mix of health and finance terms – spam filters are sometimes a pain). Sorry about that. You put a lot of thought in this comment and it’s well worth sharing.

        I think those are all very valid questions and suggestions. I’ll leave it to a hog farmer to reply to the particulars.

        My concern with HSUS’s tactics is it’s very easy to see where they want to head with this whole thing. According to comments from some outspoken leaders in the organization, they’re out to end animal agriculture as we know it. The problem with this is, they came out attacking animal ag, fighting by appealing to customer emotion by spreading misinformation, instead of starting a conversation with farmers about what is best for the animals.

        The changes suggested by the organization agenda warrant immediate restructuring. Raising livestock animals isn’t like an office where a few individuals can be fired, new people brought in, and things moved around. We’re talking restructuring physical structures, something farmers do not have the saved capital to destruct and immediately begin rebuilding. Our current structures were created through response of consumer demand. And we’re talking about living animals here, with generation intervals of several months to years. Not something we can immediately begin rebuilding.

        I bring up the issue of speed of change, because history has a lot to teach us. Take for example China. They once shifted so many resources away from food production to manufacturing, that their food system collapsed and they are still trying to rebuild it. China imports a large portion of their food. The US is blessed that we can produce so much of our food, within our country, where we have more control of how it is produced. If HSUS’s agenda became true so quickly, we would lose so much of our ability to produce our own food.

        A few thoughts to consider. I’ll send a message to a few hog farmers and see if they can share more of the particulars about that area. Until then, you might check out this blog post from a friend who recently visited her first pig farm and talked quite about with the farmers – http://ow.ly/bCh65

      2. I’ve been on a similar path wanting to understand how my food is produced and wanting to eat healthier too. Two very different goals but there is a connection in thinking about the food I eat. I’m not sure whether gestation crates are the best thing or not, but I do know that when I went to visit a farmer I met through Twitter, that what I experienced was enlightening. I would love to see people doing research on what other sorts of housing would work well because unlike you, I’m not interested in giving up meat. I have changed my habits,eating smaller servings and choosing different cuts, etc but I regularly feel like these efforts are being done at the expense of farmers and the farmers I know deserve better.

        Nice meeting you on here and I would really be interested in what you find as you keep doing research and reading.

      3. Leslie:

        Thank you for your thoughtfulness and recognition of the complexity of something that may seem very simple at first.

        I am a pig farmer. I raise pigs (650 sows/mother pigs) from conception to market in a total confinement system. 15 years ago I raised pigs outside in pasture lots. We had 150 sows at that time. It was hard, inefficient, uncontrolled work that produced extremely random outcomes. I had to change or quit the business.

        When I moved to an inside facility all this changed in a positive way. Pigs are healthier, grow faster, on less feed, with less disease (read that as less antibiotics), with less work, and much more stable outcomes. When a challenge is identified there is enough control that changes can be made quickly. The tradeoff for the sows of course was strict confinement. But I have a hard time identifying this confinement as detrimental to their well being. They are living longer, are more productive, don’t exhibit anxiety, socialize with their neighbors without fighting, etc.

        A question that I have asked, and not gotten an answer to yet, is this, “How can a sow be strictly confined (they can move, just not turn around) and their muscles not atrophy?” A sow naturally lays down 85% of the time in any environment, but even in confinement they are boobutt strong and quick as a snake. We fasten fencing down with epoxy anchoring compounds from the machine tool industry and they rip the fittings out. A sow can walk up behind another sow that weighs 500+ lbs. and toss her out of the way with a single flip of the nose. They can get up so fast they will break you arm if you aren’t careful. How can that be when they are very inactive animals?

        Because of these dangers, and multiple other factors (some of which you identified in your discussion of complexity) I will be abandoning the birthing portion of my business soon. I will be purchasing baby pigs from a larger farmer. The added risk and restrictions created by these well meaning regulation on production practices are forcing me (and others my size) out of the business. I doubt the consumer will notice when I am gone because the bigger farmers will expand to fill the hole left by me.

        I say all this as a means of introduction. If you want I will reply to specific questions. There are so many ways to head at this point I am unsure what would be of most interest to you. For my part, I am interested in you r business case study in the business schools idea. I have heard alot of ideas in ag about how to communicate with the consumer and leaders and this the first time I have heard this one. Thank you for the good idea.

      4. Leslie,

        I am the hog farmer who Janice aka JPLovesCOTTON visited. My family has raised hogs both ways, indoors and outdoors, in group housing and in gestation stalls. I can tell you the aggressive behavior of the pregnant sow is present in both environments, it doesn’t matter if the sows are inside in pens or outside in open dirt lots.

        The aggressive behavior is at it’s peak during feeding. A pregnat sow would rather bite their neighbor than share any food. Hogs also do not have the ability to know when they are full, so they tend to over eat. The bully sow will bite the less dominate sow while she is eating in the vulva (located on the rear end of the sow). This causes the eating sow to turn around and move away from the feed because that is a very tender area to be bitten. When this happens, the bully sow moves up to the feed and eats more than her share of feed, resulting in pigs too big to pass through the birth canal. This can result in death for the sow and piglets. It always results in injury to the sow during the birthing process. For the sow who didn’t get enough to eat, her pigs are born dead or unthrifty due to lack of nutrition during the pregnancy. If the pigs do survive the birthing process, the sow is usually not able to nurse her pigs adequately due to lack of nutrition during the pregnancy.

        One major reason our hogs were moved indoors is because consumers want a leaner piece of meat today. This means hogs today have less body fat than hogs did 20 – 30 years ago. Less body fat means it is harder for a hog to stay warm in the winter during zero degree weather. Hogs can not sweat either so housing them indoors allows us to keep our hogs cool in the summer (with AC like we have in our homes and offices).

        Another reason we moved our hogs indoors was so we could better protect the environment. Today we can collect the nutrients (manure) and test the nutrient content before applying to the land as natural fertilizer. This helps us be better stewards of our land. Predator attacks are also eliminated by housing hogs inside barns. Many wildlife carry diseases that livestock can catch so having hogs inside barns prevents illness and disease. Preventing illness is key on our farm, we use less medication today than we did 30 years ago because we are reducing the risk of disease tracking by wildlife and preventing injuries that can cause infections.

        I hope this helps you understand why farmers have changed how they raise hogs. If you have any more questions I would be happy to try and answer them for you. Thank you for seeking out farmers to learn more about what we do. I respect you for seeking out both sides. Increased regulations, like eliminating gestation stalls, will put farmers like me out of business. This means the bigger farms will have less competition and they will pick up the slack of my family farm. This stall regulation will not improve the welfare of a sow because a sow spends the majority of her time laying down and relaxing. They also are still able to move in their stalls. This regulation will be detrimental to family farmers like me who still own their own livestock. The large corporate owned farms will soon be all that is left in the United States if this trend continues.

  6. I’ve been following you on Facebook for a while now, and I finally got to my computer to click your “Follow” button a whole lot easier! I love reading your posts!

    Go Pokes!

  7. Thanks very much Ryan for not only posting my long comment but also writing a great reply. I am excited by the respectful debate and information exchange that you’ve got happening on your blog.

    I wanted to continue this good conversation immediately but I couldn’t because I was taking care of an anxious dog given by the owner to a rescue group I volunteer for. The change in environment put this dog “over the top” and he became unpredictably aggressive; yesterday the owner had to take him back. I mention this because it emphasized to me the sensitivity of a stressed animal to rapid or large change, which seems appropriate for our “crate debate.”

    I have more to say about HSUS and relying too much on consumer hysteria to force changes in policy. On my first Lobby Day in Albany, Ryan, I thought the same exact thing! I didn’t expect the orientation to be a video of animals suffering — that was just preaching to the choir! As a nervous first-timer, I needed bullet points on why our position was the right position and how to respond to opposing arguments. I was bothered by the feeling I had been reduced to a body capable of shedding tears and pulling a voting booth lever.

    The second year the HSUS tactics began to make sense to me. The legislators weren’t ready with pen in hand to jot down clever policy ideas offered by their visiting constituents. Most of us met with staff way far down the totem pole that year because the state budget was an overdue unbalanced mess. Expressing sentiment was likely the best bet for getting heard. I talked most about a bill to charge spectators at a dog fight with a misdemeanor. Can you believe that before the new law passed a ticket stub was the standard of proof for being a spectator?! (So no one was a spectator. And no one owned the dog either, so no one got charged with anything.)

    I am surprised that immediate restructuring is expected of farmers. That is definitely a bias against smaller operators with less access to credit for capital improvements. Don’t these things usually have a fade-in period? Didn’t the big polluters get years and years to become compliant with the Clean Air Act?

    This is a good point to thank Chris, Charles and Janice for their comments and chime in on small farms going under and being replaced by bigger players… excess consolidation at any level of the value chain hurts all us by decreasing our national food security.

    I met Tracie McMillan at the Brooklyn Food Conference on May 12, 2012. In her book The American Way of Eating, McMillan says that Walmart and other mass merchandisers control so much of the US food [distribution] infrastructure and maintain such low stock (just-in-time inventory was another Wharton subject), that a major shock could empty shelves in mere days. I see parallels with the “too big too fail” financial institutions that nearly dragged us down in 2008.

  8. To Charles, I am thrilled that you see some merit in my business case idea. I am delighted to talk about this with you and even the possibility of collaborating on a business case! I did a quick Google and came up with this business case (with an accounting focus) about a pig farm from Ivey Publishing: Stonaleen Farms.

    It surprises me to hear that sows retain muscle strength despite a living in a side-laying position. How do the sows “socialize” if they are individually crated?

    Chris, I didn’t know that piglet size and health and birthing mortality were so sensitive to the amount of food intake — that over-eating or under-eating had such effect. Andrew Gunther, the director of Animal Welfare Approved was also at the Brooklyn Conference. He said that cutting off piglet’s tails became a common practice because curious bored piglets will chew on the tail of the piglet in front of them. Gunther does not think cropping piglets’ tails is necessary (that more humane solutions are available). Do you do that to your piglets? What is “unthrifty?”

    I wrote a bit more about my experience of pigs over on elleehenry.wordpress.com.

    1. Leslie:

      A pig by nature is “lazy” . They lay down alot. the stereotypical pig is “laying” in a mud hole, not standing in the sun. There is a reason for this stereotype. Pigs lay down alot.

      As to socializing in confinement, I would say that pigs almost always will lay down so that they are touching another pig. Look at almost any picture of a group of pigs. They will be laying in groups. Experience says that if you count pigs that are laying down three at a time. 3,6,9,12 not 2,4,6,8 you can count faster and more accurately. They lay in that grouping.

      With this knowledge, then, confinement so that they touch each other when laying down doesn’t seem so onerous to me. They are able to rub, snout, and touch through the fencing.I have not seen where this arrangement causes the animals distress.

      To the tail docking question I would explain that it is my understanding that there is a vein in the tail of a pig that goes directly into the spinal cord. If an infection starts on the tail it goes straight to the spin and is a death sentence to the pig. If pigs are living in a group they may/will fight from time to time. In a pig fight there are three possible targets for the combatants and one weapon. Two ears and a tail for targets and teeth for a weapon. The ears are well defended being near the teeth. So the tail becomes a prime target. One bite can cause the infection that I have described. If you see pictures of a pig fight you will see all the markings on the shoulders. This is because the two animals end up side by side facing each other unwilling to expose their tails and ears and unable to get at the other’s without exposing themselves. It becomes a pushing match at that point.

      The solution to the risk of this infection is tail docking. Remove the target so the infection won’t get started. It is fast, effective, and relative to the infection option, rather benign. Piglets are usually back nursing in five minutes or less. I have never seen pigs bite each other “because they are curious or bored”. They bite because they fight and they fight because that is their nature. If they know such a thing as “bored” they lay down. They are lazy. They are not seeking entertainment.

      I hope all this explanation is helpful. Typing isn’t my best communication style.

      May I point out another observation I have never heard from anyone in the research community? How does a sow lay down, close her eyes, and give birth to a litter of 10 – 15 pigs and never open her eyes or express any discomfort that I can observe? That is not what I witnessed with my wife. What does it tell us about presuming we know how a sow “feels”?

      Thank you for your time and consideration.

  9. Leslie:

    I didn’t mean to ignor the business case discussion, but I really have know idea what I am talking about here. I plan on discussing the idea with those who would. If I can be of help to you in some way I would be glad to discuss it.

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