THE BLOG
11/26/2014 12:38 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2015

The 20th Century Called: It's Wondering Why the Pork Industry Never Left

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Somewhere out there, there are still people shoving VHS tapes into VCRs, re-spooling the ribbons in their frazzled cassette tapes to render them playable. And don't be surprised if you see rabbit-ear antennas on their televisions. Some people, it seems, just can't leave the 20th century behind.

There'll always be individuals who resist change. But when such resistance comes from an industry, you know that sector's going to have problems. That's exactly what's happening with the pork industry right now, with many of its leaders defending archaic, outdated and cruel practices.

Jon Stewart last week gave a masterful and stinging Daily Show performance on the topic, shining a bright light on the pork industry's dark practice of locking pigs in cages so small they're prevented from even turning around for essentially for their whole lives -- an abusive practice that came into fashion when Saturday Night Fever was in movie theaters.

But over the last several years, dozens of the biggest pork buyers have demanded that their suppliers cease using the cruel confinement system, and nine states have outlawed its use. Responding to this demand, the largest pork producers in the world -- companies like Cargill, Smithfield, Tyson and others -- have begun taking steps to shepherd in more modern ways of raising pigs.

On all this progress, one agribusiness trade publication editorialized, "You'd have to have rocks in your head to build a new sow barn with gestating sow stalls."

Yet rocks in the head is perhaps the most appropriate diagnosis for the ailment from which many pork pundits seem to suffer.

In response to Stewart's hysterical-yet-poignant condemnation of gestation crates, an editor of Pork Network -- yes, that's the website's actual name -- urged Stewart to "put down the activist Kool-Aid." The Orwellian piece enumerated all the reasons pigs allegedly prefer to be stuffed inside cages barely larger than their own bodies, again, for life.

This Pork Network editor ignores the overwhelming scientific evidence confirming what common sense already tells us: pigs prefer to have the ability to move. This is why experts like Temple Grandin, Ph.D. state, "We've got to treat animals right, and the gestation stalls have got to go." And why the Prairie Swine Center, a prestigious pork-industry research facility, concluded in a 2013 report that "better welfare can be achieved when sows are not confined throughout gestation." It's why major pork producers are replacing their gestation crates with more modern production systems, and why so many companies -- from McDonald's to Costco -- are demanding the change.

Many in the pork industry may want to remain stuck in the 20th century, defending a decades-old system of immobilizing animals like cars in a never-ending traffic jam. They may prefer to ignore critics as varied as Jon Stewart and McDonald's, but the 21st century is here. Pork producers and pundits that continue defending outdated production methods will be relegated to society's fringe, discarded as out-of-touch old-timers still watching the same worn-out VHS tapes while the rest of the world marches forward.

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Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. You can follow him at http://twitter.com/pshapiro.