Landmark animal welfare policy announced by Burger King rules

Farm animal welfare is getting a lot of attention from the restaurant industry these days and rightly so. A report put out this month by Technomic, a food industry trade publication, indicated that 73 percent of consumers see claims of “humanely raised” as significant to their purchasing decisions. Recognizing the importance of reducing the suffering of animals raised to produce their sausage, bacon, and eggs, Burger King Corp., the second largest burger chain in the country, announced a sweeping new animal welfare policy today. The company will, within five years, ensure the pork, bacon, and eggs it uses do not come from mother pigs who were confined in gestation crates or hens confined in tiny battery cages.

While some companies have taken small steps to move away from eggs produced from hens in tiny cages, Burger King is the first major company in the U.S. to make a commitment of this scale. Operating more than 12,500 locations worldwide, Burger King Corp. wields a lot of purchasing power. Commitments like this one and those being made by other major fast food companies like McDonald’s and Wendy’s are sure to bring suppliers to the table to stop the practice of confining animals in spaces so small they can’t even turn around for virtually their entire lives.

“Burger King Corp. has demonstrated when it comes to America’s largest fast food chains, it continues to set the standard,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The HSUS in a news release. “These changes by Burger King Corp. will improve life for countless farm animals and encourage other companies to abide by animal welfare principles up and down their supply chain.”

The companies dragging their heels on making improvements are failing to recognize that there’s more to the bottom line than dollars and cents. Smarter customers don’t support the lifelong confinement of animals in small crates and cages and they’re going to start asking questions. It would be wise for companies to start thinking outside the crate.

Wendy’s announces it is getting gestation crates out of supply chain

Gestation crate by THe HSUS

In the latest salvo against confining mother pigs in tiny cages, Wendy’s announced today that it is working with its suppliers to phase out the use of gestation crates in its supply chain. Wendy’s move away from pork produced by confining  pigs in crates so small they can’t even turn around follows that of McDonald’s last month and food service provider Compass Group North America earlier this month.

In its statement on Wendy’s announcement, Wayne Pacelle, The Humane Society of the United States’ president and CEO, stated,  “Wendy’s commitment to eliminate gestation crates provides further evidence that we are on the pathway toward ending this inhumane practice once and for all.”

Wendy’s also announced it is starting to source chicken from suppliers using a new poultry slaughter system called low atmosphere pressure stunning, which would render chickens unconscious before being handled by workers and would replace the notoriously cruel electrical water-bath stunning.

It’s good news to see that many food companies are making progress in improving the welfare of animals in their supply chains. Still, there are many that are lagging behind in spite of consumer sentiment, sound science, and the competitive landscape. One such example is Domino’s Pizza, which has failed to take a position to move ingredients produced in some of the cruelest fashions out of its supply chain. You can sign a letter to Domino’s CEO via this online petition to ask Domino’s to stop using pork from gestation crate systems.

Ag-gag laws: Keeping cruelty mum

Another investigation into a pig breeding facility was announced today. This time, D.C.-based Compassion Over Killing was the group behind the exposé. Among the group’s findings were:

  • Poorly performed castrations that resulted in herniated intestines
  • Workers pushing the herniated intestines back inside the piglets, then wrapping the area with tape
  • Countless sick or injured piglets left to suffer without veterinary care, many of whom later died
  • Sows languishing with uterine prolapses and later dying
  • Forced cannibalism: intestines from dead piglets are pulled out and turned into “gruel” to feed back to pigs
  • Layers of feces caked on the floor of crates and filthy, fly-infested conditions

The investigation revealed the routine suffering mother pigs endure when confined to cages where they can’t even turn around for months on end, like one whose hooves had become so overgrown she could hardly walk.

The type of footage COK documented is the very footage that animal agribusiness doesn’t want consumers to see. They know most people are horrified to see footage of intelligent, sensitive animals lined up like parked cars and unable to engage in important natural behaviors. That’s why several states now have introduced so-called “ag-gag” laws.

Ag-gag laws proposed in Iowa, where the COK investigation was conducted, as well as Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, and most recently Utah would make it a crime to take photos or videos of a farm without permission from the owners. Some of the bills would even make it illegal to possess the video footage.

Undercover investigations done by groups like The Humane Society of the United States have resulted in findings that have helped curb potential threats to public health. For example, one investigation The HSUS conducted at a slaughter plant that provided meat to the USDA school lunch program documented workers shoving, kicking, and even using a forklift to try to get former dairy cows who were too sick or injured to stand up to walk to their deaths. This spurred the largest meat recall in U.S. history and led to a new federal policy banning the slaughter of “downer” cows.

The bills are opposed by animal welfare, food safety, workers’ rights, and constitutional rights organization. Who supports them? The people who don’t want you to see where your meat, milk, and eggs come from.

Check out this map of undercover investigations and ag-gag laws from AnimalVisuals.org. If you live in a state where ag-gag laws have been proposed, contact your legislators and ask them to protect animals and food safety by voting against the bills.

Smithfield sets 2017 deadline for gestation crate phase-out

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Smithfield Foods had come under fire by The Humane Society of the United States for making false and misleading claims to its shareholders about animal welfare, the environment, and antibiotic use. This led to many media stories about Smithfield’s routine abuse of animals like its confinement of breeding pigs in gestation crates—iron maidens that prevent the animals from even turning around during their entire four-month pregnancies. Companies that are large purchasers of Smithfield’s products, like McDonald’s, were also implicated. McDonald’s has taken the position that group housing (not gestation crates) “is best for the welfare and well-being of those sows,” yet has no plan in place for sourcing pork from suppliers that don’t use gestation crates.

Today we received good news for pigs. Smithfield has publicly re-committed to phasing out the use of gestation crates by 2017. The company had set this goal in 2007 and reneged on its own deadline in 2009 in the midst of the economic downturn. In spite of the long phase-out period, Smithfield’s announcement is welcome news. According to the Associated Press, the company’s president and CEO, C. Larry Pope, stated, “(Our customers) want us to do that, and we’ve heard them loud and clear. This company is going to do what’s in the best interest of the business and the best interest of our customers.”

With Smithfield being the largest pork producer in the world, it’s a wake-up call for the industry to follow suit. Consumers care about animal welfare and don’t want pigs, or any other animal for that matter, confined in such small spaces they can hardly move more than a few inches their entire lives. Wayne Pacelle, CEO of The HSUS praised the announcement, stating in a news release, “Smithfield’s recommitment is an important and welcome move. With the company back on track with its phase-out, we’re getting closer to the day when the cruel confinement of pigs in gestation crates will be a bygone era for the entire hog industry.” I’m look forward to celebrating the demise of these contraptions. In the meantime, we can all urge Smithfield’s competitors to follow its lead and move away from gestation crates. Change.org has a simple petition you can sign to ask Hormel to do just that.

Smithfield: Out of the frying pan

Timing is everything as the saying goes. Yesterday Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer, launched a web site devoted to corporate social responsibility (CSR). Today, The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) filed a legal complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that Smithfield is making false and misleading claims about animal welfare, the environment, and antibiotic use.

Smithfield has long come under fire for its use of gestation crates for breeding pigs. Gestation crates are stalls that are about 2’ wide by 7’ long—about the size of a pig’s body. The floors of the crates are typically concrete and/or slatted wood. They are used to confine the breeding pigs—not those who consumers eat directly—but those who produce the ones consumers eat. The pigs are artificially inseminated, put into the gestation crates for the duration of their pregnancy—about four months, then put into a “farrowing” crate to nurse their young. After a few weeks, their young are prematurely weaned and the breeding pigs are re-impregnated and put back into the gestation crate, pregnancy after pregnancy until they are slaughtered.

According to the HSUS, which is a Smithfield shareholder, “As a result of the intensive confinement, crated sows suffer a number of welfare problems, including poor hygiene, risk of urinary infections, weakened bones, overgrown hooves, poor social interaction, lameness, behavioral restriction, and stereotypies.” Experts, including animal welfare advisor to Smithfield Dr. Temple Grandin, agree that gestation crates are bad for the pigs’ welfare. Grandin has repeatedly condemned gestation crates saying, “I feel very strongly that we’ve got to treat animals right, and the gestation stalls have got to go.”

So what’s the HSUS’s beef with Smithfield? The 28-page HSUS complaint alleges Smithfield made false claims about standards of animal care, like asserting its practices exceed industry standards. Highlighted on Smithfield’s new web site are a series of videos touting its CSR standards. One such video features a veterinarian who is depicted as working for Smithfield explaining to her son that while pigs produced by Smithfield must die, it is the company’s responsibility to provide the “best possible environment, best care that we can make available to them.”

In truth, Smithfield is lagging behind some of its competitors like Cargill, which has switched fifty percent of its system to crate-free and Maxwell Foods, which is completely gestation crate-free. And an HSUS undercover investigation into Smithfield subsidiary Murphy Brown last year documented pigs with abscesses and pressure sores developed from rubbing against the bars and lying on the concrete floors. Others chewed the bars of their crates out of frustration “so incessantly that blood from their mouths coated the fronts of their crates.” The exposé revealed employees jabbing pigs with rods and tossing piglets into carts.

Pig in gestation crate at Smithfield-owned farm (c) Humane Society of the United States

The complaint also states that Smithfield fails to disclose full details about routine surgical procedures performed on its newborn piglets. While it demonstrates that it performs routine castrations and tail docking, the company fails to disclose that the painful procedures are done without a drop of painkiller. According to the HSUS, “The AVMA, however, recommends for such procedures the use of practices that reduce pain, including the use of effective medications whenever possible.”

The complaint also targets Smithfield’s routine broad use of antibiotics and “misleading assertions of ‘organic agriculture.’” Recognizing the public is increasingly concerned about antibiotic resistance due to the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics in animal agriculture, in one of Smithfield’s videos the company states, “We do not use antibiotics for growth-promoting purposes. We use antibiotics for three main purposes: to treat disease, prevent disease, and control disease.” Of course that’s not to say that the company doesn’t give the animals antibiotics even if they’re not sick—just why it does so.

Federal securities law prohibits publicly traded companies from making false statements of material fact or the omission of a material fact that would prevent a statement from being misleading. Smithfield then has a lot of explaining to do. More importantly though, is its responsibility to act as it is suggesting it does by giving the animals in its care the best possible environment. It can start that by setting a true plan and timeline moving away from using crates that prevent pigs from even turning around for months on end. Smithfield, to its credit, says it has switched thirty percent of its sow housing to group housing.