It's a battle over one word that could put thousands of pork producers out of business, many of whom are in Nebraska. Con Agra announced Monday morning, to the shock of many, that they will be switching to gestation crate free farming.
No pork producers in the state knew that was coming, that includes Mark McHargue of the Farm Bureau and Jim Knopik of the Humane Society of the United States. Both are in the same industry, but they couldn't be on more opposite ends of the spectrum on this issue.
One producer was elated, the other was disturbed by the announcement.
"We're fussing over one word, humane or inhumane," said Mark McHargue, a small operation pork producer in Central City. That one word is the focus of a $13 billion Nebraska company, Con Agra.
The company is now saying in part, they are committed to what they call "the humane treatment of animals" and therefore "support the elimination of gestation stalls."
"As part of our long-standing commitment to the humane treatment and handling of animals, ConAgra Foods supports the elimination of gestation stall housing for sows," said ConAgra Foods in a statement. "We are asking our pork suppliers to present actionable plans by 2017 that address both the elimination of gestation stalls and creation of traceability systems within the pork supply chain. We recognize that implementing a phase-out may be a long-term process, and could take up to 10 years ," said the press release.
"It's not a surprise, but it is a disappointment that a Nebraska company would come out and probably do something that will hurt Nebraska pork producers like myself," said McHargue.
The argument over these crates is blowing up the pork industry from within, but Con Agra didn't start the debate. Major fast food retailers like McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, in addition to Costco, Safeway, Kroger, Cargill, Smithfield Farms and Hormel are on board.
"There's no way we should ask animals to spend their lives in crates as big as their bodies," said Jim Knopik, a farmer on the HSUS Nebraska Board of Producers. Although the news was surprising to Knopik, it's not a shock.
"It's important to consumers how they've been raised and treated, and what they put on their table," he said. A former user of confinement farming, Knopik said there's a difference.
"Running around with a syringe every day, refilling medical feeders, it tells you high stress is bad for their health and happiness," he said. "It all works hand in hand."
"I think the system we use is more humane," said McHargue. Mark has his reasons too, he says sows are protected from one another in crates and get fed without competition which can be a common problem in group housing situations. Essentially he said, the practice of gestation crates ensure the loss of less pigs which in turn also gets passed on to the consumer.
"Most pork producers sell to the general consumer who can't or isn't willing to pay extra price," said McHargue. "Everybody's on a budget."
"It's all about big producers wanting hogs cheaper," countered Knopik. "It's all about [mass] production." Production that with this change away from gestation crates could shut down thousands of smaller pork producers like McHargue, leaving Knopik competing against the big boys.
"Con Agra is talking 2017 to develop a plan," said McHargue. "Unfortunately, Con Agra doesn't tell us their plan, just what we have to do; they don't have a plan to buy." He added, "Only 17 percent of pork in the country is produced in an open pen situation. That leaves 85 percent left to transition."
HSUS Does hold stock in Con Agra, which McHargue points to as a major factor for the transition. Knopik said the market for his free range livestock, poultry and pork points to the fact consumers are the ones responsible for the change in the industry.