Getting to the meat of the matter (Editorial)

(Dec. 1, 2015) Last month, JBS S.A., Brazil’s second largest hog producer, announced it would be phasing out the use of gestation stalls through its global supply chain by 2025.
The company, which also bought Cargill’s swine unit last month, announced earlier in the year that it would stop using the stalls in its own facilities by 2016, but didn’t put a timeframe on its suppliers.
The move is the latest in a years’ long series of companies that both sell and buy pork products that have planned a phase-out of gestation stalls, amidst perceived public and activist pressure.
Governments have gotten in on the act, too.
The European Union, Canada and nine U.S. states have legislation against the use of gestation stalls, which will be phased out in New Zealand by 2015, and by 2017 in Australia.
After decades of use on hog farms worldwide, gestation stalls, a scientifically validated practice originally employed to increase animal welfare by lowering aggression and stress in sows, could no longer pass muster with consumers growing more curious about production practices regardless of their knowledge or experience in animal husbandry.
Riding this wave of consumer demand might be a bit easier if consumers better knew what they were demanding.
A 2012 Purdue University study found respondents put using the stalls highest among practices that they felt reduced pig welfare the most.
How did they form that opinion?
When asked which sources they frequented the most, 56 percent said they had no source for animal welfare information, and the Humane Society of the United States and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals were the next most often cited sources.
In fact, more people turned to the HSUS and PETA for animal welfare information than industry groups, government agencies and scientific sources combined.
“These statistics should lead to questions about the effectiveness of communication between agricultural industries and consumers,” the Purdue researchers concluded. “Why are animal protection groups more successful at connecting with consumers?”
The answer is “emotion,” pure and simple.
Knowing the bulk of the public hasn’t set foot on a modern hog farm, activist groups issue a shock-laden description or spliced grainy video clips to make the impression that the practice is abusive.
Using the stalls to better feed sows individually, protect them from more aggressive sows or the research on well-managed farms, sows in gestation stalls are as or more healthy than sows in group housing doesn’t get mentioned.
Particularly worrisome is how the move away from gestation stalls, plays into the incrementalism approach used by animal rights groups to reach the goal of ending animal agriculture through smaller and repeated pressure campaigns.
Writing in her blog in September, Hannah Thompson, communications director of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, said the strategy was a key message at this year’s Animal Rights National Conference.
According to Thompson, one speaker “suggested that activists lie to the public by saying, ‘We are trying to reduce the number of animals used for food. We aren’t trying to make everyone vegan.’ This strategy — ‘putting your foot in the door, not in their face’ — was said to be more likely to keep the attention of a target audience than being direct and upfront about promoting veganism.”
This time, it was gestation stalls in sow barns.
When the question becomes banning meat altogether, we’ll see who truly has the ear of the public.