Last century, as swells of rural dwellers moved to cities and as corporations turned small farms into mammoth operations, Americans lost the connection between what they eat, where it comes from and how it's produced. But that link is slowly being reclaimed due to a confluence of factors, including food-safety scares, the alarming obesity rate and concerns for animal welfare.
Minnesota is a pivotal player in a momentous shift underway in the pork industry. The state is among the nation's top three pork producers and also is home to retail giants Target and Supervalu, which are rightfully demanding that farmers stop using tiny, restrictive stalls to house pregnant sows -- a standard practice since the 1980s.
What's at stake is who decides agricultural practice. Pork producers who financially invested in gestation stalls understandably resent costly decisions being dictated by nonfarmers. They insist the sows are more productive and receive better care because the stalls allow farmers to more easily attend to the animals than do alternative methods such as group housing.
The National Pork Producers Council says changes would increase the cost of pork and drive consumers away. But it was the quest for exacting the maximum profit from each sow that led to a U.S. agricultural system that treated animals merely as a means to an end without regard to their quality of life.
The metal stalls (or crates) are typically only two feet wide, so the animals can't turn around. They're only long enough for a step or two forward or backward, so exercise isn't possible. The extreme confinement shows such a shocking disregard for animal welfare that they're banned in nine U.S. states and soon will be in the European Union.
So far more than 50 of the nation's major pork buyers -- including the Campbell Soup Co., Costco and McDonald's -- have set reasonable timelines for vendors. Most are asking producers to phase out gestation crates over a 10-year period. While some large pork suppliers are balking, others have instituted significant changes.
Earlier this year, Minnesota-based Hormel Foods said company-owned farms in Arizona, Wyoming and Colorado "will be 100 percent" group sow housing before 2018. A spokesman at Cargill's company-owned pig breeding operation in Kansas said 50 percent of the operation had already stopped using stalls.
Disturbing undercover videos taken at Christensen Farms in Sleepy Eye and other large pork producers helped to the elevate concerns. But consumers must realize that no system is perfect. Group housing provides sows greater mobility, but makes them vulnerable to injuries from aggressive animals while making it harder for producers to monitor their individual health and food intake.
Even so, Americans' emerging interest in agricultural methods is long overdue. Health-conscious Americans, as well as those battling weight issues, want to know more about what's in the food they eat and about its impact. Consumers are also raising key ethical questions about the meat they buy: What were the animals fed? More important, how were they treated?