The last time you sat down for a Moons Over My Hammy omelet or a Sausage Slam at Denny’s, there’s a good chance that the food came from a pig born of a sow that had been confined, for most of her adult life, to a crate about the size of the booth you were sitting in. But the Spartanburg-based restaurant chain hopes to change that soon.
In May, Denny’s announced that it will work with its suppliers to eliminate the practice of confining pregnant sows in gestation crates (also called sow stalls), according to a statement issued by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). Gestation crates are a common part of large-scale pig production in industrialized agriculture (“factory farms” to their detractors).
Between 60 and 70 percent of the breeding sows in this country are confined to gestation crates, according to an HSUS study.
“Denny’s takes its role as a responsible corporate citizen seriously, which is why we have adopted a strong position on animal welfare,” said Greg Linford, Denny’s vice president of procurement and distribution, in the announcement. “We will endeavor to purchase products from companies that provide gestation crate-free pork and are committed to influencing our suppliers to share in a gestation crate-free vision for the future. Working to eliminate gestation crates is best for our company, our guests, and our continued work to improve animal welfare.”
Gestation crates have come under increased scrutiny in recent years by animal-welfare groups such as HSUS and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as well as concerned consumers.
The crates typically measure about 2 by 7 feet, barely larger than the sow’s body, which prevents her from turning around, according to an HSUS report. In most facilities, the individual crates are arranged in rows of about 20, with around 100 sows per shed. Sows are typically inseminated artificially, often as early as seven months of age. The sow is kept in the gestation crate for almost all of her four-month pregnancy. Just before the sow gives birth, she is moved into a slightly larger farrowing crate, which allows her to lie down and nurse her piglets. After the piglets are weaned, the sow is re-impregnated and moved back into a gestation crate.
Gestation crates are designed to minimize competitive behavior, aggression and competition for resources among the sows, according to a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV), published by the National Pork Board on pork.org. They also allow individual feeding and provide for worker safety, said the study.
Disadvantages include restriction of movement and exercise and limited social interaction, the study continued. An HSUS study warned of other animal welfare concerns, including elevated risk of urinary tract infection, weakened bones, overgrown hooves and lameness.
As an alternative to gestation crates, Smithfield Foods, the largest pork supplier in the U.S, and other pork suppliers are planning to move pregnant sows into group housing systems. Group housing varies widely; however, some producers group more than 100 sows together at a time in large indoor pens, allowing them freedom to move and socialize normally.
Smithfield currently has 30 percent of its sows on company-owned farms in group gestation facilities, the company said, and expects the total cost of the conversion to exceed $300 million.
With more than 1,650 locations across the U.S., Denny’s is the latest major pork purchaser to denounce gestation crates. In February 2012, McDonald’s, buyers of around 1 percent of all U.S. pork, announced its pledge to eliminate the crates from its supply chain; Wendy’s followed in March, and Burger King made a similar announcement in April. However, Domino’s Pizza rejected a ban on gestation crates at a stockholder meeting in April.
In May, Safeway Stores became the first large grocery chain to announce its plan to “eventually” phase out buying pork from suppliers who use gestation crates.
Bi-Lo is “working with each of its suppliers to encourage them to review how to best remedy this issue, whether it be through research or phasing out gestation crates altogether,” said Stacey Couch, senior director of meat and seafood marketing for the Mauldin-based supermarket chain. Smithfield is one of Bi-Lo’s primary pork suppliers, said Couch.
Smithfield has vowed to eliminate the crates at their facilities by 2017, as has Hormel, the makers of Spam. Eight states, starting with Florida in 2002, have already banned the practice, with bills pending in five others, the HSUS noted.
The U.K. and Sweden have already banned the crates, and by 2013 the European Union plans to mandate that sows be removed from crates after four months of pregnancy.
The movement has not pleased many in the pork industry. R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, N.C., and president of the National Pork Producers Council, claimed that “similar actions taken by governments – or other restaurant or grocery chains – have increased production costs and consumer prices. These actions have forced some hog farmers out of business or caused them to reduce operations, with no demonstrable health benefits to sows.” Hunt characterized the HSUS as “an animal rights group whose ultimate goal is the elimination of food-animal production.”
Pork industry supporters cite the veterinarians’ associations’ conclusions that both gestation crates and group housing “have advantages and disadvantages.” Group housing can lead to aggression and injury, uneven body conditions, and the inability to forage, said the AVMA/AASV study.
Nonetheless, Denny’s has made its commitment to ending gestation crate pig confinement. “We’ve got a very good relationship with Denny’s, and the company is serious about dealing with farm animal welfare issues in a meaningful way,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the HSUS. “We welcome the news that Denny’s will move its supply chain to a gestation crate-free future.”