In a rural setting an hour west of Philadelphia, several dozen pigs are living the good life in a big, rectangular indoor enclosure. They laze in cubbies or trot around in groups, activities that don’t sound especially remarkable. But much of this seemingly commonplace behavior would be foreign to the average pig in America. It can happen thanks to a yellow disc the size of a grape that Thomas Parsons has attached to each pig’s right ear.
Parsons developed their housing setup as a demonstration model crossed with research facility. As an associate professor of swine production medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school, Parsons’s job is to figure out ways to keep pigs healthy while they’re growing up on farms, which in turn keeps farmers’ yields high for the pigs’ eventual fate on our plates. In response to public concern over the cramped conditions in which most pigs spend their days, Parsons has constructed a system, dubbed “Penn gestation,” that allows sows to roam free instead of being confined for the better part of their lives in gestation crates–an enclosure of metal bars that measures around six feet by two feet, making it impossible for the animal to turn around–as they’re repeatedly inseminated and give birth.
But Parsons’s solution to improving pigs’ existence goes beyond letting them roam free. The Penn gestation system is just one part of a larger solution to how horrible we treat our pigs before we eat them. But to solve that problem, Parsons needs to do something more: He needs to build a different pig entirely.
Crates have been a hot-button topic for animal welfare groups for years. Recently, Bill Maher, in a New York Times op-ed, and Jon Stewart, on The Daily Show, took up the issue when a New Jersey bill to ban gestation crates was on Governor Chris Christie’s desk (Christie vetoed it), and Chipotle has been in the news because pork is unavailable at a third of its restaurants, thanks to a major supplier’s violation of the company’s pig-welfare standards.
An image of free-roaming pigs is what makes you feel okay about ordering the pork tacos at Chipotle. More than 60 major food retailers have called for crates to be removed from their supply chains in the next decade, including General Mills and Kraft (owner of the Oscar Meyer brand). In this environment of increasingly loud chants for free-roaming pigs, Parsons’s system answers the call. About 60 farms nationwide, totaling about 120,000 sows, now use the “Penn gestation” system.
Crates were a solution to a problem. Just a few decades ago pigs were raised in pens and ate feed thrown on the ground. But the socially dominant animals would muscle their way to more food while the timid ones ended up eating less. Scuffles could result in injured animals. If you housed the pigs individually, however, you could feed them individually, and none would get bullied out of a meal. Thus the gestation crate.
But pigs, naturally curious animals, stuck in cramped spaces get bored out of their minds. What the “Penn gestation” system does is capture the one advantage of crating: the individualized feeding, without the damaging effects. The yellow radio frequency ID tag in the pig’s ear is read electronically as the animal goes through a gate and allows it to enter a feeding station alone. The tag signals for the correct amount of food to be released for that pig. The transmitter can also keep track of other data, functioning like an electronic health record. In addition, the overall enclosure is big enough to allow a timid pig to escape from a pestering one.
With farms of varying sizes adopting the crateless system, there’s plenty of proof that “it can be done,” Parsons says. But then he adds, “Can it be done better?” A preferable scenario: a pig engineered to live peacefully in an open, group setting.
Pigs are vigilant about social hierarchy, which begins at birth. “Basically they have a nursing order,” Parsons says. “The first guy out finds the most plentiful teat and he’ll latch on to that. Then the poor last guy that comes out gets what’s left over. It’s very Calvinistic, being a pig, because depending on where you’re implanted in the uterus, your whole life is planned out for you.”
The dominant, aggressive behavior doesn’t matter when sows are housed in gestation crates, and for four decades, farmers have essentially been selecting for big, meaty pigs that will live alone in a confined space. But one group of animals has remained outside that selection process: rare heritage breeds with names like Gloucestershire Old Spots and Tamworths. These guys are the basis of Parsons’s potential pig re-engineering project. Litters of these pigs have taken up residence at the Penn Vet campus for Parsons and his team to study. If the heritage breeds display less belligerency, they could be bred with the traditional feed pig to create a more easy-going variety.
Penn Vet’s Kristina Horback is working with Parsons’s pigs, administering behavior tests that examine things like exploration impulses and responses to novelty. “A lot is based on mouse models,” she explains. “We just blew it up to sow-size.”
All of this effort, however, faces a market demand that Parsons describes as complex and “fuzzy.” A crate-free system requires more room and more oversight by farmhands, thus raising costs. And the issue is volatile, with even those farmers and retailers pledging to eliminate crates often getting criticized by animal-welfare groups for not doing enough or not doing it faster. Several food retailers who’ve pledged to eliminate crates were contacted for this story and asked what role consumer demand played in their decision. Most did not respond. A representative of the Cheesecake Factory emailed that “we’re going to have to pass on commenting on this particular topic.” A farmer who has adopted the “Penn gestation” system didn’t want to speak about his decision, preferring not to draw any attention to himself or implicitly criticize other farmers who maintain the crate system.
Nevertheless, dozens of major retailers have committed to crate-free pigs in the coming years. A solution is needed–and available. Parsons is ready with his radio frequency tags–and possibly with a rejiggered pig.