By Tyler Harris
An estimated 20,000 pork producers from around the world have gathered in Des Moines for the 2012 World Pork Expo June 6-8, and Iowa Governor Terry Branstad spoke at Thursday's luncheon on the topic of animal welfare and the importance of the pork industry to the economy of the U.S. and to major pork producing states.
Pork producers are angry about the announcement last week by fast-food restaurant giant McDonalds that it will phase-out purchases of pork produced by hog farms that use sow gestation stalls. McDonalds says it's goal is to phase out such purchases by 2022. Other restaurant and supermarket chains, led by Burger King, Wendy's, Denny's and Safeway, have announced similar phase-outs. Smithfield Foods, a major hog producer in the U.S., says it is already switching from gestation stalls to pens for pregnant sows. Smithfield plans to completely quit using gestation stalls by 2017.
Eight states have already passed laws to ban gestation stalls for sows, and several other states have bills pending that may do the same. Animal rights organizations, such as the Humane Society of the United States, have pressured food companies and restaurant chains to stop buying pork that comes from hog producers who use gestation stalls and to stop buying eggs from egg producers whose laying hens are in cages that aren't a larger size.
Pork producers attending the World Pork Expo, when asked about this issue, say they are angry over their industry not being consulted by the food store chains and restaurant chains before these decisions are announced. Pork producers predict that higher costs for them to produce hogs will result if they are forced to switch to using pens for sows instead of gestation stalls. Thus, pork prices will rise for consumers.
Governor addresses animal welfare issue, praises hog producers, pledges support
Dallas Hockman, vice president of industry relations for NPPC, says "We do care about animal welfare. But there should be a serious discussion about it with us—the hog producers. These announcements by the restaurant chains and food stores are knee-jerk reactions."
Iowa Governor Branstad along with Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds expressed their pride in the success of Iowa's pork industry and its contributions to the state's economy. "We actually have more pigs than we do people," Reynolds says, noting that an average of 33 million hogs are raised annually in Iowa. "We're proud of that."
Branstad says agriculture has been a significant factor in Iowa's income growth, and in 2010, the state's income growth was second only to North Dakota, which is experiencing a boom in oil production. "I was governor during the mid-1980s farm financial crisis, that period when agriculture was one of the weakest parts of the American economy," he says. "Today agriculture is one of the strongest parts."
U.S. and Iowa pork exports have soared in recent years, China is a big buyer
Earlier this week, Branstad returned from a visit to China, one of the biggest importers of Iowa pork. In 2011 Iowa and other hog production states enjoyed record exports of U.S. pork, and China was a significant customer, says Laurie Hueneke of the NPPC. "China is the country with the largest consumption of pork in the world," she notes.
At the same time, Hueneke says, U.S. pork exports to Russia have dropped about 60% since 2008. Part of the reason is due to Russia's freezing requirements. The Russian government requires imported pork to be frozen to prevent trichinae in pork products, says Paul Sundberg, vice president of science and technology for the National Pork Board. He says adding that freezing process decreases the quality of the pork. However, he points out that according to a USDA study, the risk of a trichinae case occurring from U.S. pork is about one out of 285 million. "That's nothing," Sundberg adds. "That's hardly even there."
Animal welfare issue and gestation crates will continue to generate discussion
Dr. Janeen Salak-Johnson, a University of Illinois scientist who is a recognized expert on animal stress and the animal welfare issue, spoke at the luncheon following Branstad. She addressed producers on the ongoing issue of animal welfare in the pork industry. Salak-Johnson, who supports producers' decisions in sow housing, says it may be necessary to make a change in the system as long as it doesn't hurt the producer financially, but not based on an outside entity's decision. "We have to find production systems that are welfare-friendly," she says. "But these systems have to be economically viable."
Noting that the issue is more activist driven than consumer driven, Salak-Johnson says consumer education on production is crucial in this issue. "The consumer is largely out of touch with production practices," she says. "The issue has always been driven by perception and not science."
Addressing the gestation crate issue and animal welfare in general, Branstad expressed support for Iowa and U.S. pork producers. "We, the leadership of the state of Iowa, are on your side," he assured the pork producers.
Harris is a journalism intern writing for Wallaces Farmer magazine in Des Moines.