U.S. producers take stand on gestation stalls

Vow to fight one-sided story | Some hog producer organizations say animal rights lobbyists are pushing a vegetarian agenda

DES MOINES, Iowa — American hog farmers are not giving up their gestation stalls.

A mood of defiance has gripped some producers, who believe consumers and retailers can be turned into stall supporters if they learn more about their benefits.

“A fully informed consumer will make the right choice,” National Pork Producers Council president Randy Spronk said in an interview at the World Pork Expo held in Des Moines, June 5-7.

“I think what’s happening here right now is we’re not talking about the full story. I don’t think that a lot of people understand some of the unintended consequences that might happen (if gestation stalls are banned.)”

Spronk said open housing might increase the carbon footprint of pork production, increase the cost of pork or have other negative effects that consumers aren’t thinking about because all they hear are attacks on the ethics of gestation stalls.

The movement against gestation stalls is international, widespread and making major gains. The European Union has officially banned stalls, and while not all member countries are complying with the EU rules, some are.

Canada’s new proposed pig code contains a phase-out date of 2024 for existing hog barns.

Many retailers in Canada and the United States have said they intend to stop buying pork produced in gestation stall systems, while some major hog producers, such as Smithfield Foods and Maple Leaf Foods, are getting rid of their stall systems and moving to open housing.

However, Spronk said the present conversions and new construction of open housing systems will represent only 15 percent of U.S. pork production by 2015, so the train is far from having left the station on gestation stalls.

“There’s a huge amount that’s still in individual stalls,” he said.

Many producers attending the World Pork Expo showed up for lunch presentations by leaders of organizations dedicated to fighting animal rights activists.

Rick Berman, founder of Humane Watch, and longtime Washington political staffer Brian Klippenstein railed against animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S., describing them as fundraising-rich organizations pushing a semi-secret vegetarian agenda.

Both said the public’s perceived dislike of gestation stalls is the result of aggressive lobbying by animal rights groups and little resistance from hog farmers and the pork industry.

They said the seemingly inevitable tide against sow stalls could be turned back by equally aggressive campaigning by producers and equally combative attacks on the activists, similar to what the activists have employed against farmers.

Spronk had similar views, saying consumers should be left to make up their own minds on the issue rather than be forced to buy stall-free pork.

“It’s the ability to choose, for the consumer to choose, the retailer to choose and for the producer to choose,” he said.

“It may take us longer to get that correct decision, but I think we need to be very careful on outside forces, if we get down the line in 20 years and say, ‘hey, we made a mistake.’ ”

However, many producers at the Expo’s sprawling trade shows were checking out electronic sow feeders, free access stalls and other equipment needed for open housing systems.

Traditional gestation stall equipment was scarce.