02/06/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2014

A Race to The Bottom For The Pork Industry?

You may have seen the headlines: Major pork producers like Smithfield and Tyson Foods are moving toward better treatment of pigs. Most notably, they're trying to hasten an industry-wide shift away from the cruel-but-standard practice of locking these social, intelligent animals in "gestation crates"-- cages so cramped, the animals can't even turn around for years on end.

For the countless people concerned about how badly animals on factory farms -- nearly all farm animals -- have it, such announcements are certainly welcome news.

But Steve Weiss doesn't seem to fit into that category. The pork industry spokesperson recently took to the blogosphere, pleading with pork producers to write Tyson Foods and implore the company not to mandate animal welfare improvements. In lamenting the news that breeding pigs may some day be able to turn around, he pressed that "it's critical that the food industry does not engage in this 'race to the bottom.'"

A race to the bottom? That's exactly how the pork industry got itself into this position in the first place. Cramming animals into smaller and smaller spaces -- to the point where they're essentially immobilized and lined up like parked cars -- is the result of a decades-long industry race to the animal welfare bottom. With no rules to offer even the most modest protections for animals, producers eventually reached the bottom with gestation crate confinement, or as Weiss euphemistically calls them, "individual maternity pens."

How quaint.

Let's put this into context. In the pork industry, most breeding pigs are confined day and night during their four-month pregnancy in gestation crates on factory farms. These cages are roughly the same size as the animals' bodies and designed to essentially immobilize them. Breeding pigs are subsequently transferred into another crate to give birth, and are then re-impregnated and put back into a gestation crate. This happens pregnancy after pregnancy for their entire lives, adding up to years of immobilization.

This practice is so inhumane that nine states have passed laws to ban it, and nearly all of the major food retailers in the country this year have announced their plans to eliminate it from their supply chains. Animal science experts like Temple Grandin, Ph.D., condemn the practice, arguing that "confining an animal for most of its life in a box in which it is not able to turn around does not provide a decent life." Grandin further states, "We've got to treat animals right, and the gestation stalls have got to go."

But some pork industry representatives like Weiss disagree with Grandin. It's difficult to imagine someone more out of touch with mainstream American sentiments about how animals ought to be treated. Perhaps the muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair said it best when he noted, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Fortunately for pigs, Weiss is increasingly isolated in his unwillingness to understand what is plainly happening. One needn't look beyond the website to see the direction the industry is headed. In fact, the future is so clear that Meat & Poultry magazine has noted, "This is no longer a debate about the viability of gestation crates in hog production, but rather a discussion about how producers will respond to meet expectations."

That's right: The race to the bottom is ending. Regardless of the cries of few industry outliers, gestation crates are headed to the dustbin of animal agribusiness history, and it can't happen soon enough.

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States.