Smithfield Foods Inc., the international behemoth of pig exploitation, announced this week that it can’t keep the commitment it made in January 2007 to phase out the use of gestation crates for pregnant pigs by 2017.
Smithfield’s pledge came after gestation crate bans were enacted in Florida and Arizona (by citizen initiative), phasing out the use of the cramped crates used to house sows during pregnancy on modern factory farms. That momentum continued with bans in Oregon, Colorado, California, and Maine. The majority of these bans will be in effect by 2017, as will a ban on gestation crates across the entire European Union. So why is Smithfield saying that, two years into the project, it won’t be able to eliminate the cruel crates from its operations within the ten year timeframe?
The world’s largest pork producer and processor cites financial losses (to the tune of $190 million in fiscal year 2009), mostly due to rising production costs. Over the last year, the company cut the number of breeding sows by 10 percent and plans to further reduce that by another 3 percent. Smithfield is calling on the industry as a whole to reduce pig production by 10 percent. And, just like the dairy industry (which is also calling for an overall reduction in production), the pork industry is sponsoring its own “retirement” program (health benefits not included) in an attempt to recover lost profits.
After the swine flu (um, I mean H1N1) outbreak, China – Smithfield’s biggest customer – closed its doors to U.S. pig parts. Smithfield thought it had dodged a bullet when Mexican officials failed to find any infected pigs at the company’s La Gloria facility, which some claim was ground zero for the pandemic. The Mexican government, however, is calling for an investigation of factory farms in relation to the virus, and the husband of the first U.S. resident to die of the H1N1 virus has filed a legal petition against Smithfield as a first step in a wrongful-death lawsuit. The scientific jury is still out regarding the origins of H1N1, but the intensive confinement of animals raised for food is surely being scrutinized.
Meanwhile, Smithfield claims it remains committed to eliminating cruel gestation crates, and will proceed as planned as soon as economic conditions improve. I’m skeptical. While the Centers for Disease Control advise washing your hands to help ward off swine flu, I say wash your hands of the entire pork industry.
The lesson here is that the elimination of cruel confinement systems like gestation crates cannot be left to the whims of vested industry: rather, it needs to be codified into law. It is not enough to take the word of mega-corporations, which at the end of the day answer only to their bottom line and cut compassion like any other line item in their budget when the balance sheet shows net loss. There has to be some accountability.
Legislation to ban the terrible three – gestation crates, veal crates and battery cages – is currently pending in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Rhode Island. Citizens in Ohio and Michigan are on the verge of losing their voices in the debate due to anti-democratic industry-backed bills being escorted through the state legislatures by political sellouts. We need your help to dismantle the bars and provide basic freedoms for these animals. Please take action today.