Pig Farming: Addressing Environmental, Medical & Ethical Concerns

Mar 28, 2016

Credit AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Virginia is home to the world’s largest pork producer – a Chinese owned company called Smithfield, and this region produces nearly nine million hogs a year.  It’s also a hotbed of opposition to the factory farms where most of those animals live.  

Margaret Riley is a professor of law at the University of Virginia and the head of its Animal Law Program.  She admits to a fondness for pigs.

“They are such smart, social animals that it is really crucial to treat them well.”

So you might expect her to advocate stronger laws for the protection of hogs on American farms.  In fact, she doesn’t think that’s the best way to go.

“The best way of dealing with these issues is public opinion, but it should be educated public opinion.”

Case in point, people who felt it was wrong to keep hogs in small crates or stalls shared their views with Smithfield, the world’s largest pork producer, and Chief Sustainability Officer Stewart Leeth says the company listened.

“In 2007 our president at the time, Larry Pope, decided to convert all of our sow housing to open pens.”

And contractors who raise pigs for Smithfield will also switch to open pens by 2022. 

In addition, some states are taking action. This fall, Massachusetts will vote on whether to require pork producers selling there to provide their pigs with enough room to move around, and at the Humane Society of the United States, Paul Shapiro says pressure is coming from big corporate customers like McDonald’s.

“Many of the biggest pork buyers in the country have already demanded that their pork suppliers shift toward group housing systems, where the pigs can walk around, express more of their natural behavior and socialize with one another rather than being essentially in solitary confinement.”

Consumers might also switch to free range pork from pigs raised on small, organic farms, but Professor Riley says they must be prepared to pay more.

“When you go into the grocery store and look at that package of meat, you don’t necessarily say, ‘That’s a pig.’  You say, ‘That’s $4.99 a pound.’ People will say if they’re surveyed, ‘Yes I care very much about humane practices,’ but if you look at what people buy, they’re very price conscious.”

Scientists are also pushing the industry in new directions.  At Virginia Tech, animal science Professor Mark Estienne is experimenting with feeding pigs probiotics rather than anti-biotics – good bacteria that could help prevent illness by boosting the animals own immune systems.  And, he says, a new study shows sows are more productive if they grow up in less crowded conditions.

“The pigs that were most crowded in the nursery, when they farrowed their second litters, the litter size was smaller than the pigs that had the normal amount of floor space.”

Then there are those who simply refuse to eat meat.  Nadia Taha is with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 

“We’re all equally empowered to do the single biggest thing that we can to end not just the use of gestation crates but all of these cruel practices, which is to keep animals off our plate altogether.”

Vegetarianism is increasingly popular – especially among young people in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia, but UVA law professor Margaret Riley says demand for meat is growing in countries like China and India. 

“It’s viewed as a luxury good – a sign that you have made it, and worldwide meat consumption is going up considerably.”

Which could explain why a Chinese company recently bought Virginia-based Smithfield.  Ultimately, Riley hopes environmental, medical and ethical concerns will be addressed by laboratories in Silicon Valley or the Netherlands, where scientists are searching for ways to use vegetable proteins or cultivated animal cells to craft something that looks, feels, cooks and tastes like meat.