Bacon Is the New Veal: Why the Cruelty in the Pork Industry Must Be Stopped

Pigs are curious animals who go insane in their tiny factory-farmed crates.

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Will bacon become the new veal? In honor of Food Day, which occurs every October 24th, let’s consider the tale of two types of food industries maligned for their mistreatment of animals. This tale illustrates the contrast between two goliaths in our food system: both involved in similar abuses, both evoking consumer outcry, but each reacting in different ways.

For decades, calves in the veal industry were the iconic example of factory farming’s disregard for animals’ welfare: baby animals confined in tiny crates, unable to even turn around for the duration of their lives. The images of calves fighting to move just a few inches were gut-wrenching for even the most ardent carnivore. Consequently, millions rejected veal, restaurants stopped serving it, and states and countries legislated to ban it.

The industry tanked. Between 1950 and 2007, annual American veal consumption went from four pounds to half a pound.

Burdened by consumer and legislative backlash, the veal industry got the message. The American Veal Association pledged to rid its facilities of the notorious crates. That year, Randy Strauss, CEO of the world’s largest veal company called the crates “inhumane and archaic,” stating that they “do nothing more than subject a calf to stress, fear, physical harm, and pain.”

While the process of eliminating veal crates continues, the industry’s progress has been welcomed as a path toward fixing what the American public has deemed unacceptable. By letting its animals turn around, the veal industry has begun to turn its image around.

Now, leaders in the pork industry find themselves where their veal industry counterparts were decades ago: confining animals in immobilizing cages with no plans for reform. In pork production, breeding sows are confined in “gestation crates” and repeatedly impregnated for nearly four years. These coffin-like cages are barely larger than the pigs themselves.

Pigs are curious, active animals. When they are immobilized in these tiny cages and robbed of any mental stimulation, they go insane, often biting the metal bars with such desperation that their mouths fill with blood. They rock back and forth for hours on end—a psychological coping mechanism demonstrating distress and depression. By the time they’re sent to slaughter, their bodies deteriorate from having been forced to stand in the same position for years on end.

As consumers have learned about this abuse, their ire has been redirected from veal to pork. In three states, voters went to the polls and overwhelmingly banned gestation crates, collecting the majority of votes from Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike. With the urging of their constituents, six state legislatures passed laws eliminating the cages, as well.

Meanwhile, more than 60 of the world’s largest pork-buying companies—including McDonald’s, Burger King, Costco, Kroger, Safeway and Oscar Mayer—have announced policies to eliminate from their supply chains pork produced using gestation crate confinement. Top pig producers, including Smithfield and Cargill, have agreed to phase out the use of gestation crates while many traditional farmers have avoided using gestation crates for generations.

While the gestation crate’s downfall mimics that of the veal crate, there’s one major difference: where the veal industry’s leadership listened to consumers and forged a path away from crates, the pork industry’s leadership has chosen to dig in their heals, defend their industry’s abuse and advise producers to ignore the consumer outcry.

“So our animals can’t turn around…,” remarked the National Pork Producers Council following McDonald’s announcement that it would eliminate gestation crates. “I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.”

But the trajectory is clear, whether the pork industry’s leaders accept it or not. Food companies have spoken so loudly on the issue that pork industry publication The Western Producer editorialized “You’d have to have rocks in your head to build a new barn with gestation sow stalls.” Meatingplace magazine bluntly stated “Game over. For any pork producer still on the fence, the…move [away from gestation crates] is inevitable.” 

In America, consumers dictate the marketplace and capitalism has a way of weeding out companies that fail to understand this basic concept. It’s Business 101. The veal industry felt the consequences of this marketplace truism, and its leaders adapted. The pork industry’s leaders seem to have missed that course. 

With the public now aligned against gestation crates, the pork industry should think outside the cage and put its gestation crates out to pasture.

Josh Balk is food policy director at the Humane Society of the United States.


Josh Balk is the vice president of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshbalk.

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