08/01/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

"We Eat Ribs, Not Crepes." The American Pork Industry's Reaction to the 21st Century


We no longer have to wait days to see the photos we've taken. Black and white televisions can now only be found in antique shops. And the glory days of beeping, buzzing pagers waned long ago.

But imagine if the film, word processing and home electronics industries had refused to innovate. Imagine instead, that they simply accepted the status quo as the best they could do, insisting on only doing business as they'd known it. Then imagine that on top of refusing to change, these industries went as far as mocking their customers who were demanding innovation. Imagine Sony mocking Best Buy for wanting color televisions, or Verizon mocking Apple for refusing to manufacture pagers.

That's exactly how much of the U.S. pork industry is behaving right now. Faced with intense criticism over its extreme confinement of millions of pigs in gestation crates -- tiny metal cages in which the 500-pound animals can't even turn around for months on end -- the National Pork Producers Council and companies like Tyson Foods are still guarding the status quo. Just in the last year, Europe's ban on the inhumane practice took effect, and nearly 60 of North America's biggest pork customers -- McDonald's, Costco, Burger King, Oscar Mayer and dozens more -- have demanded change.

And what's the U.S. pork industry's response?

Jim Long, CEO of one major pork company, recently spoke at the National Pork Industry Conference:

We don't like top down edicts. We aren't afraid to compete but we don't like elites whether in Europe or Park Avenue Animal Rights Activists telling us what to do. Our nature is to fight for what we believe in. We are not appeasers; we drive Pick Ups not Renaults. We eat ribs not crepes, we play football not tennis. We are different, we are wired that way. Europe is Europe. America is America. We don't like experts from Europe telling us what to do.

In one nutshell, you have the American pork industry leadership's reaction to the call to innovate and raise the bar when it comes to animal treatment: We eat ribs, not crêpes.

Forget the fact that the regulations adopted in Europe have now been mirrored by legislation in nine U.S. states, or that the industry's own largest U.S. customers -- companies like McDonald's, known for McRibs not McCrêpes -- require a shift away from gestation crates: innovation is apparently not something that people who "play football not tennis" are "wired" to embrace.

Fortunately, not everyone in the U.S. pork industry shares the same antipathy toward improving animal welfare. In fact, the main industry trade journal, Pork magazine, took a different tone last year when it advised its readership to start converting because "on the issue of gestation-sow's increasingly apparent that you will lose the battle." Meatingplace called the elimination of gestation crates "inevitable." And one Feedstuffs article noted that gestation crates are "no longer defendable."

At least some in the pork industry are starting to recognize that continuing to produce pagers in an iPhone world may not be the best strategy for success in the 21st century. If only the industry's leadership would realize the same.

And they don't even have to eat crêpes to do it.

Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him at For the record, he is lifelong football fan.