More shoppers demand ethical animal treatment
Farms, big food suppliers feel pressure to eliminate abuses.
Chet Mogler’s family has raised hogs in the northwest corner of Iowa for three generations.
Like most farmers, Mogler used to confine them in tight pens. But animal rights groups and consumers increasingly object to the practice, and large food companies like McDonald’s have responded by pledging to buy meat from companies that assure better living conditions for the animals.
So when the Moglers put up a new $13 million sow barn, the family opted for a design that provides group housing and more room for the pigs to move around.
“Part of the reason we went to the group housing was because the customer was asking for it,” Mogler said. “We did a lot of research, and this is the system we thought was the best for the animal.”
Animal welfare has become a highly visible issue as consumers pay increasing attention to how food is produced. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. consumers believe the humane treatment of animals should be a societal concern, according to a recent survey by the food market research firm Packaged Facts. Activists frequently call out the worst practices with dramatic undercover videos that are shared around the world.
All of the large companies that process meat that ends up in U.S. grocery stores have committed to eliminating abuses and improving animal care in general. Austin, Minn.-based Hormel, for example, spotlighted the Moglers in a video as the kind of supplier the company wants to work with.
But major food companies like Hormel face a difficult challenge. They depend on vast networks of independent farmers who also feel financial pressure to run efficient, low-cost operations. The big companies set treatment standards, but sometimes they do not have enough control to assure compliance.
“When it comes to animal welfare throughout the supply chain, it’s far more complex,” said Kurt Vogel, a professor of animal science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “There’s a consumer-perception component, an ethical component, a scientific component and a product-quality component. And all of these things melt together.”
Bedrooms and cliques
The Moglers have tried to create an environment for their pigs that reflects the latest advances in animal housing.
The family used group sow houses 30 years ago, but problems with aggression decreased the animals’ reproductive capabilities. All 4,000 of the females in the Moglers’ barn are breeders, and spiked hormones and cantankerous behavior come with their pregnancies.
But over the years, technology enabled the development of better housing systems, and the family decided to try again. Their research led them to design the group sow house, which is based on a European model that alleviates much of the aggressive behavior between sows.
On a recent midmorning, dozens of sows were lounging about their “house” — one of many within the barn — unfazed by Mogler’s fiery 5-year-old daughter wandering between the 500-pound creatures, slapping their backsides and telling them to “get out of the way.”
Each house has partial concrete walls that create “bedrooms” within the larger space, allowing sows to hang out and sleep near those they get along with while avoiding those they dislike.
“We went with this bigger system so that they can get away from their enemies and stay with their friends,” said Mogler. “They almost create social cliques.”
Every sow has an electronic ear tag that monitors its eating habits and whereabouts. Rather than large trough feedings for an entire group, this tag allows each sow to enter “the kitchen” where it can eat an individually allotted feed portion in peace.
The kitchen is a series of single stalls protected by bars that prevent other pigs from entering until a sow finishes its meal, which maintains order and leads to more uniform weight gain across the entire group.
The female pigs, Mogler points out, relieve themselves near the back wall, which the sows have designated as “the bathroom.”
The Moglers aim to produce 2,500 weaned piglets a week without compromising the animals’ welfare.
“Animal care is very important to us,” Mogler said. “I hate being painted as a factory farm, because I think our care is as good as anywhere.”
A push for change
The National Pork Board estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of all sows in the U.S. are now in group housing, up from between 15 and 18 percent in 2012, said Sherrie Webb, the trade group’s director of swine welfare.
Large retailers and food service companies such as McDonald’s, Target and Supervalu are behind the push. Each has committed to stop buying pork from suppliers that keep their animals in “gestation crates,” confined metal stalls where some adult female pigs may spend most of their pregnancy.
Hormel will end the use of the crates at all its company-owned hog farms by the end of this year, as will the nation’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods.
But only about a third of Smithfield’s hogs and less than 6 percent of Hormel’s are raised on company-owned farms. Hormel buys most of its hogs from 775 farms across the Midwest.
Smithfield has asked all its contract hog farms to completely eliminate gestation crates by 2022. Hormel stopped short of making the same request of its suppliers.
“We have the philosophy that we want to work with the farms who want to raise pigs,” said Cory Bollum, Hormel’s director of pork procurement.
Even when Hormel establishes standards for the treatment of the animals it buys, ensuring that all of those individual farms are complying can be difficult.
Hormel’s executives woke up on the morning of the company’s annual shareholder meeting in January expecting the day’s biggest problem to be a looming snowstorm.
Then came the video. An activist animal rights group released undercover footage from an Oklahoma hog farm that supplies Hormel in which workers castrated piglets and clipped their tails, as blood flowed.
It was the latest in a series of undercover videos at operations that supply Hormel with pork. In 2015, the animal activist group Compassion Over Killing released graphic footage of hogs being roughly handled and slaughtered at a plant that is across the highway from Hormel’s headquarters and supplies the company with about half its pork. In 2016, there was another undercover video from a hog operation that also supplies Hormel with pork.
Hormel opened investigations in all three cases, and temporarily suspended its supplier relationship with the Oklahoma and Nebraska operations. The company said it generally tries to work with suppliers who have broken animal treatment standards to improve worker training around treatment and handling.
Neither agree or disagree
At the same time, companies are working hard to try to change public perceptions since the public often holds them more responsible than the individual farmer.
Hormel has featured the Mogler family in a promotional video to highlight its commitment to improved standards for animal care.
It even invited Food Network star and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Amy Thielen to the video shoot to add an element of credibility to its efforts.
The Humane Society of the United States, which works with companies to improve their animal welfare standards, praises Hormel for committing to cage-free eggs, diversifying into plant-based protein businesses — like its Evolve protein shakes or Skippy peanut butter — and for committing to eliminating gestation crates at company-owned hog farms.
But it faults Hormel for not imposing the same demand on the farms that supply pigs.
“They have such a massive supply chain,” said Josh Balk, the Humane Society’s vice president of farm animal protection. “They could mandate that they only buy pork from producers who eliminate gestation crates. They could do that, and at this point they haven’t.”
A decadelong battle
Animal welfare issues started getting a lot of attention in the 1990s, nudged along by activists and prominent animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, who ended up helping McDonald’s to create an animal welfare scorecard that the company would use to grade the treatment of animals at slaughterhouses where it sourced its beef.
“The ’80s and the early ’90s were atrocious,” Grandin said. “When McDonald’s started auditing [the beef plants] in 1999, I saw more change across the entire industry than I saw in my 20-year career prior to that.”
Grandin said animals are treated much better today. The undercover videos that come out now aren’t as shocking as the ones from two or three decades ago, she said, and a lot of the newer ones show rough handling or carelessness, not outright abuse.
Bernard Rollin, an animal bioethicist at Colorado State University, was once booed when he spoke before 30,000 ranchers. Now he works with the cattle industry to find ways to eliminate pain during castration, dehorning and branding.
Rollin thinks there is a lot of room for the food industry to continue to improve its animal welfare practices, and he thinks consumer pressure will force producers to do so.
“Not only is there a way, it is inevitable,” he said. “There’s going to be fits and starts. But the bottom line is people have a relatively clear vision of what they want, and it isn’t pigs in cages. And I think you’ll see the equivalent of that in all areas.”