Sow crates seen as cruel treatment
Many pork consumers are unpleasantly surprised to learn that pregnant sows are often confined for their entire reproductive lives to individual spaces that are so small that virtually no movement is possible. The term “gestation crate” is commonly applied to these small spaces. Advocates of more humane pork production systems have been working for some time now to require that a minimal standard of crate size that allows sow movement be adopted into our animal welfare statutes.
Another voice in support of this position was heard on Jan. 10 of this year, when the Vermont Livestock Care Standards Advisory Council issued a statement recommending “that the confinement of sows during gestation is done in a manner that allows them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.”
The council, created by the Vermont Legislature for the purpose of making recommendations to the Legislature on farm animal welfare issues such as this one, includes a very diverse group of individuals including various livestock producers and handlers, veterinarians, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, and representatives of agricultural colleges, slaughter facilities, food safety organizations and local humane agencies. A Vermont hog farmer also sits on the council.
Given the diversity of the group, the unanimous recommendation to abandon the use of severely restrictive crates for gestation suggests that a widespread consensus is emerging that this is not an appropriate animal care system. Following testimony and discussion, the council did recommend that the use of crates for “limited restraint of swine for purposes such as feeding, breeding, handling, farrowing (giving birth) and disease control” continue to be permitted.
The council’s position is supported by the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association’s similar testimony as presented at hearings last March. In that testimony, professor Temple Grandin, a national expert on livestock management practices, was cited for her comprehensive look at the gestation crate system and her assessment that most natural sow behavior is prevented by confinement that excludes the simple movements at issue. In her analysis, the severely restrictive crating system clearly violates several of the basic parameters used to measure farm animal well-being, including: “freedom to express natural behavior,” “freedom from discomfort” and “freedom from distress.”
This recommendation makes a statement that here in Vermont we are committed to examining our animal husbandry practices when needed and that we take seriously the increasing societal concerns about the treatment of farm animals in the age of industrial meat production. Even though currently most pork production in Vermont does not use such severely restrictive crates for sow gestation, it is encouraging that the council affirms that they are not acceptable and that, going forward, new operations should not employ crates that prevent sow movement for anything but very time-limited usage.
Virginia Clarke, DVM, is chairwoman of the animal welfare committee of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association.