Recognizing a growing unease about the conditions in industrialized farms in the United States, Smithfield announced with fanfare in 2007 that it would be phasing out the use of gestation crates for its sows. Shortly thereafter, Nicolette wrote an essay in the New York Times arguing that the company was not going far enough. But now it turns out that Smithfield won't even be getting rid of gestation crates.
In the Smithfield shareholder notice for its upcoming annual meeting, it included the following statement, indicating that it will not make good on its commitment to do away with gestation crates:
Due to recent significant operating losses incurred by our Hog Production segment, we have delayed capital expenditures for the program such that we no longer expect to complete the phase-out within ten years of the original announcement.
This illustrates the problem with voluntary measures to improve animal welfare. There's nothing that deters agribusiness companies from abandoning them when they become inconvenient.
Agricultural trade associations have long asserted that animal welfare laws are a bad idea because farmers and ranchers know best how to take care of their animals. We heartily agree. In our experience, the people who work with farm animals every day have the best sense of what is needed to ensure their welfare and the knowledge of how welfare can be protected in practice. But good animal husbandry is literally impossible in industrial set-ups.
In addition to the ubiquitous use of gestation crates, pigs in confinement buildings are never given any bedding to lie down on. Straw or other bedding is impossible because it would gum up the works of the confinement building's sewage flushing system. Animals are forced to stand and lie on concrete or grated metal flooring for their entire lives. The same is true for egg-laying hens, who are typically confined to cages so small they cannot stretch their wings.
The benefit of laws is that they create a level playing field for all farmers and ranchers. If everyone must operate under the same rules, farmers who want to provide good conditions for their animals are not put at an economic disadvantage for doing it. That's the main advantage of mandates. In fact, when the feeding of antibiotics was outlawed in Sweden in 1986, it was at the behest of the meat industry itself for precisely this reason. Similarly, we've talked with cattle ranchers who've said they wish the government would ban growth hormones for cattle because then they could afford to stop using them. If no one is allowed to do it, no one gets an upper hand from the practice.
Recently, Nicolette spoke with David Favre, a professor at Michigan State University Law School who specializes in animal law. "Farm animals need enhanced legal protection as their life conditions--their welfare--are governed by the economic pressures of the marketplace, and neither the federal law nor the state anti-cruelty laws protect them from exploitation," Favre said. "Cheaper and more 'efficient' production means less and less concern for the animals' welfare. Because of the political power of the industrial agriculture lobby it is very difficult to obtain laws that simply respect their lives, lives that they will soon give up to become human food."