Tyson Foods sent a letter to its hog suppliers dated Jan. 8. that reflects a new set of animal welfare guidelines involving sow farm operations, including a shift away from sow gestation crates.
The Springdale-based meat giant had stood firm in recent years on the use of gestation crates of female hogs. These narrow metal enclosures hold the female pigs during their pregnancy, until they are moved to a farrowing crate a few days before birth, where they can lie down and nurse the piglets.
But Tyson reversed that stance this week on the heels of an earlier announcement by competitor Smithfield Foods who offered its suppliers cash incentives to abandon the use of gestation crates – a move it made with its own hog-raising operations in 2007.
In the Tyson letter to its hog suppliers, the company outlined five desired improvements in its animal welfare program that it expects suppliers to adopt. As part of FarmCheck, the company's ongoing animal well-being program, Tyson said it is increasing audits of sow farms.
"The third-party audits we began in 2012 are important in our efforts to help ensure responsible on-farm treatment of animals and we believe more audits will further validate good sow farm management practices," the company said in the letter, signed by Shane Miller, senior vice president, pork division, and Dr. Dean Danilson, vice president of the company’s animal well being program.
The new guidelines include:
• Tyson asking its contract farmers to install video monitoring systems by the end of 2014 and urging them to use video monitoring of their operation to increase oversight and biosecurity risks.
• Tyson urging its pork suppliers to improve "quality and quantity of space" standards in the design of any new or redesigned gestation barns beginning in 2014. "Whether it involves gestation stalls, pens or some other type of housing, we believe future sow housing should allow sows of all sizes to stand, turn around, lie down and stretch their legs," Tyson said.
• Tyson recommending that suppliers discontinue use of manual blunt-force trauma to euthanize sick and injured piglets as that practice "may not match the expectations of today's customer's or consumers" although it has been acceptable in the industry.
• Tyson’s support of the use of anesthetics and analgesics as pain mitigation for tail docking and castration of piglets. Tyson said current industry practices could use improvements and it will fund research to further improve practical pain mitigation methods for these routine procedures.
Tyson noted there are varying opinions on the issues addressed in its letter, but the company's stance is an effort to "balance the expectations of consumers with the realities of today’s hog-farming business.”
One animal activist group and Tyson shareholder, the Human Society of the United States, has repeatedly asked Tyson to require its hogs suppliers to abandon the use of gestation crates as more food companies such as McDonald’s have refused to source pork from companies who allow crating.
“While the letter contains several promising points on a variety of issues, like encouraging a shift away from 'euthanizing' sick or injured piglets through blunt force trauma and urging the development of pain relief during castration and tail docking, the stand-out, in our view, is Tyson’s language on the issue of sow gestation crate confinement,” said Anna West, spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the U.S.
She said unfortunately, Tyson’s letter does not mandate anything of its suppliers with regard to sow housing, nor does it outline any timeline by which alternative housing systems must be in place.
“Nonetheless, this is big movement from an important company. Tyson may still have a ways to go when it comes to shoring up a gestation crate-free supply system, but its first steps on this issue – like all steps on the path toward a more humane way of living or conducting business – are most welcome,” West added.