The Housing Debate

By David Preisler, Executive Director, Minnesota Pork Producers Association


What’s the best housing for sows—group pens or individual gestation stalls?  Fanned into flame by animal rights organizations, the answer to this question is a burning topic of discussion in state capitols, Washington, D.C., and multi-national food corporation boardrooms. This debate, however, has taken place largely without input from the farmers who are responsible for pig care and who bring affordable, high-quality pork to the marketplace.

When the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) updated its policy on sow housing in March it essentially remained intact. It states: There is no scientific consensus on the best way to house gestating sows because each type of housing system has inherent advantages and disadvantages. The NPPC statement also says that “such decisions are best left to the individual producer and to the market.” Read the policy in full.

The Minnesota Pork Producers Association (MPPA) agrees with our national organization’s position. We recognize that marketplace demands are increasingly driven by human emotions and decreasingly by an understanding of livestock production. We believe, however, that pork producers, together with their veterinarians, must continue to have the freedom to base their animal care decisions on research and science, and to retain their right to select the production system that best fits their husbandry skills and their choice of market. NOTE: The American Association of Swine Veterinarians recognizes both pens and stalls as appropriate for housing sows.

Our concern is that government may mandate a particular type of swine housing. In the poultry industry, this is currently under consideration by Congress through legislation that prescribes housing for laying hens. We do not believe government’s role is to mandate animal housing because such directives fail to consider animal science and research, farmers’ animal husbandry skills, or the long-term consequences to consumers.

In the European Union (EU), animal husbandry regulations are raising production costs and causing farmers to either exit livestock production or adapt, resulting in higher meat prices for consumers. Not surprisingly, the European Union’s sow housing regulations are facing legal challenges from several member countries. The outcomes of these challenges are being watched closely by U.S. pork producers.

On Jan. 1, 2012, when the EU requirement to double the space allotted laying hens went into effect, many farmers simply quit the egg business because it became too expensive. This is resulting in 75 to 100 percent increases in egg prices and egg shortages throughout the EU. If the U.S. enacts similar legislation, we suspect a similar situation will occur.

The EU’s gestation stall ban goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. At this point, eight months before it takes effect, farmers in many of the largest pork producing countries have yet to switch from stalls to pens. Will they make the transition, or like many egg producers, will they simply shut down their operations on Dec. 31?

People most important
Within the sow housing debate, three factors deserve our attention: the people managing the animals, food safety, and preservation of the environment.

First, worker and pig safety is paramount. These are not small animals, and we lack good data on the potential for worker and animal injury in pen gestation housing. The NPPC and the National Pork Board are currently pursuing additional research. We also need to make sure we continue to produce a safe product for the marketplace and that we do so in a way that protects and sustains the environment.

It’s also our responsibility to ask whether or not consumers can bear the cost of our building new animal housing systems that have no tangible benefits to either food safety or animal welfare. As pork producers, we are ethically responsible to provide quality protein to as many people as possible. This responsibility comes into conflict when increases in pork prices limit consumers’ ability to buy quality protein, but this is the scenario animal rights organizations are gradually putting into place. Groups that advocate gestation stall bans are not interested in animal care, on-farm safety, food affordability, or science and research. They recognize that calling for a ban on meat consumption would be politically unsuccessful but by using the regulatory process to increase meat costs, it will reduce meat consumption and achieve their end goal.

Short- vs. long-term view
In addition to legislative mandates, we are deeply concerned by several retailer and food service companies’ decisions to base their product purchases on the type of housing used to raise livestock. These decisions, based on animal activists’ rhetoric and often without input from actual livestock farmers, are being made at the boardroom level rather than by the actual meat buyers. In many cases, it’s purely a marketing decision and amounts to a clash in vision between those involved in the food chain for a short time and those who take a long-term view.

The tenure of most food company CEOs is three to six years, resulting in policy decisions designed to maximize near-term stock value. A CEO’s short-sightedness will protect the company from brand disparagement by animal right groups and will keep stockholders happy, but the failure to acknowledge or understand the long-term consequences to farmers and consumers is irresponsible management.

As shareholders of the Pipestone Management, you take a long-term view. You do things that affect the industry and the consumer for decades instead of quarterly. You base your decisions on what will work for generations to come and you are genuinely concerned about sustainability.

It’s become more of a challenge to discuss the longer view with the food companies. We used to talk directly to the meat buyers—now we focus on chief sustainability officers, chief information officers, and those who advise the CEOs. These are multi-national corporations and communicating our message is a challenge. The expertise within the NPPC and the National Pork Board, plus the networks in which the NPPC and the NPB function, have helped pork producers access the boardrooms to begin dialogues supporting long-term visions rather than short-term gains.

The MPPA and Minnesota Pork Board’s Oink Outings initiative brings together pork producers and consumers through booth events and tours. The program’s overall goal is to demonstrate the shared values, such as family, safe food, animal care and wise use of resources that exist between farmers and the general public.  Read what the Minnesota Pork Producers Association is doing to tell your side of the story.