At the United Egg Producers’ Animal Welfare Conference in New York City, Chad Gregory asserted that some in animal agriculture just aren’t listening to consumers and their customers when it comes to what are acceptable welfare standards for raising their animals. Gregory cited a quote attributed to Dave Warner, director of communications for the National Pork Producers Council, which appeared in a National Journal article as an example of this. "So our animals can't turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets," said Warner. "I don't know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.... The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that's at an all-time high."
Neil Dierks, CEO, National Pork Producers Council, issued a statement distancing the organization from the attributed remarks. “The comments were inappropriate and do not represent the views of our organization nor do they reflect the values of the hardworking American farmers who produce safe and nutritious pork for consumers around the world,” Dierks said. “Our nation’s pork producers take great pride in their long-standing commitment to the highest standards of humane care for animals.”
Americans have empathy for animals
I accept that the quote that appeared in the National Journal article is not the position of the National Pork Producers Council, and I am glad that it isn’t. But the statement is illustrative of an important point for animal agriculture. Science alone will not win a welfare debate. In the instance of farrowing crates, once you start trying to rate the relative value of an additional piglet versus the sow not being able to turn around for 2.5 years, you have already lost the debate in the eyes of the average person. They don’t want smothered piglets and they want sows to have some freedom of movement. You don’t need a laboratory to figure this out; most Americans have pets, and they have empathy for most mammals and birds. Call it anthropomorphism if you like, but many consumers can “feel” the pain of a complex creature like a pig or chicken housed in a very restrictive environment.
The same reasoning holds for egg producers who try to equate egg production as the primary means of determining bird welfare when the issue is should a hen be able to flap its wings, forage, dust bathe or lay its egg in a nest. Do egg producers really want to explain that it is okay for hens not to engage in these behaviors?
Regaining the moral high ground
The United Egg Producers has decided that this battle is already lost and is trying to regain the high ground by transitioning to enriched cages, and I think they are right. I have only followed this debate closely for a little over a year, but I hear from just as many people that the egg industry has been too slow to act in the past as I do those who say that the federal legislation is too big a step to take now.
I wish the pork producers luck in resolving their issue with farrowing crates. Perhaps technology will be developed that allows sows greater freedom of movement while still protecting piglets from being smothered and keeping the sows from injuring each other. But trying to maintain the status quo on farrowing crates indefinitely is a loser for the pork industry.
U.S. consumers don’t have to eat pork or eggs; they have lots of choices. Everyone in agriculture has to remember that you might be able to preserve the right to produce using certain practices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will still have the same customer base after the fight is over.
The organization that represents companies that produce approximately 90 percent of the U.S. egg supply thinks that enriched cages provide the solution to its number-one welfare conundrum without destroying the industry and keeping its consumers happy in the process.