Under pressure from animal rights activists and sensing a shift in consumer sentiment, several major pork producers have agreed to phase out gestation crates and switch to more open pens. Some of that change will come as U.S. pork producers build new barns and retrofit old ones to give hogs more space. Many of those same producers point out that consumers opposed to keeping pregnant sows in tight cages can expect to pay for their clearer consciences with higher food prices.
Dennis Treacy, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer for Smithfield Foods, says major pork buyer McDonald's Corporation recently announced its suppliers will have to stop using gestation pins as well. He says – that announcement was a tipping point in the debate about gestation stalls versus pens. Smithfield had converted 30 percent of its company-owned farms by the end of December and is on track to meet its goal of switching all of them by 2017.
Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council says – putting open pens into existing barns cuts production because the buildings can't hold as many sows. But building bigger barns to accommodate group pens is expensive, and smaller producers who can't afford to retrofit existing barns could be forced out of business, further reducing supplies. On top of that add veterinary costs that can go up because sows tend to fight and sometimes injure each other.