SMITHFIELD Foods and Tyson Foods last week urged their hog farmer suppliers to implement hog raising practices that the companies view as representative of responsible food production.
On Jan. 7, Smithfield recommended to its sow growers to convert facilities to group housing, and a day later, Tyson encouraged its contract and independent hog farmers to implement a series of production practices.
In a response to customer feedback, Smithfield made a business decision in 2007 to convert to group housing for pregnant sows on all company-owned U.S. farms by 2017, and now, it is recommending that its suppliers do the same.
Smithfield, along with its hog production subsidiary Murphy-Brown LLC, announced that it asked its contract sow growers to join the company in converting their facilities to group housing systems for pregnant sows by 2022.
"More and more food companies are looking to suppliers to move toward group housing systems for pregnant sows," said Dennis H. Treacy, executive vice president and chief sustainability officer of Smithfield. "To date, more than 50 companies — many of them Smithfield customers — have announced that they will source pork in the future from suppliers utilizing group housing."
At the same time, the effort to finish converting company-owned farms to group housing remains on track, with Murphy-Brown reporting at the end of 2013 that it had transitioned 54% of pregnant sows.
Smithfield believes now is the right time to encourage its contract growers to begin the conversion process. Last month, Smithfield notified its contract sow growers nationwide of this recommendation.
In order to accelerate the time table, a sliding scale of incentives will be offered, and growers who commit to converting to group housing will receive contract extensions upon completion of the conversion.
In a statement, Smithfield emphasized that the conversion of contract growers' facilities is strongly encouraged but not mandatory. If growers choose not to participate, their current contracts with Murphy-Brown will remain unchanged, although extensions are less likely.
Don Butler, Murphy-Brown vice president of government and public affairs, told Feedstuffs that, as a company, it does not advocate one type of housing over another.
The conversion process is complex and takes time to complete. Smithfield acknowledged the fact that an expansion of buildings will be necessary, in most instances, to accommodate group housing. Butler confirmed that growers are responsible for the cost of conversion.
"We recognize that these projects require a significant investment on the part of our growers, but a well-planned renovation to a group housing system will help maintain the farms' value for years to come while at the same time supporting our company-wide commitment to animal care," C. Larry Pope, Smithfield president and chief executive officer, said.
Butler said the news was not a surprise to the growers since it has been discussed since 2007, but the feedback received has been mixed. Some growers have embraced the idea, and others believe it will create hardship for their operation, but the additional incentives offered by Smithfield should help offset the cost.
"We want it to be an orderly process that will work fairly for our company and the growers," Butler said.
In a letter, Tyson asked its contract and independent hog farmers to voluntarily commit to a series of production practices that the company's Animal Well-Being Advisory panel deemed to be responsible food production.
Among the recommendations are for pork producers to use video monitoring in their sow farms as a tool to improve on-farm animal care and decrease biosecurity risks.
In a response, the National Pork Board agreed that video monitoring could be a useful tool but never a full substitute for in-person auditing, and purchasing the appropriate system will be an additional cost for producers.
The letter also encourages producers to discontinue the use of manual blunt force as the primary method of euthanizing sick and injured pigs.
In addition, Tyson is asking its producers to adopt practices that reduce or eliminate the pain associated with tail docking and castration for piglets, which should include the use of anesthetic and analgesics approved for use in pigs and allowable under the Animal Medicinal Drugs Use Clarification Act.
However, the Pork Board clarified that, at this time, there is no approved drug for pain mitigation in pigs. It is recommended that hog farmers work with their herd veterinarian to comply with Tyson's suggestions.
Similar to Smithfield's communication, Tyson advised its contract farmers to improve housing systems, especially for gestating sows, that concentrated on both "quantity and quality of space."
"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 in the letter. "We're asking the contract farmers who manage Tyson-owned sows to implement improved 'quality and quantity of space' standards in the design of any newly built or redesigned gestation barns beginning in 2014."
In a response, the Pork Board stated that it "maintains the position, supported by the American Veterinary Medical Assn. and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, that there are numerous ways to provide proper housing and care for sows."
At the end of the day, the recommendations from Tyson and Smithfield will come at the expense of the hog farmer and, ultimately, the consumer. The unanswered question will be if everyone in the chain — from packer to consumer — will be willing to pay the additional costs.