by Deena Shanker | September 21, 2018
Animal welfare advocates call the practice of using gestation crates cruel and inhumane. Companies pledge to stop.
Consumers are increasingly turning to organic, antibiotic-free and “natural” animal food products to opt out of a system they see as cruel or incompatible with their values.
For busy adults trying to cook more with high-quality ingredients, Blue Apron Inc., one of the first meal kit companies, seems to offer an easy solution. More than just delivering good food to your door, the company markets itself as part of a do-gooder lifestyle. “With each Blue Apron home chef,” its website says, “we can build a better food system.” For those food-woke people who still want to shop, there are such supermarket brands as Tyson Foods Inc.’s antibiotic-free pork line, Open Prairie Natural Pork. Until recently, Tyson supplied Blue Apron with antibiotic-free pork.
But shoppers may be surprised to learn that both brands have included meat from production systems that use what animal welfare activists call “gestation crates,” tiny cages that don’t allow pregnant sows to even turn around. Activists consider them to be one of the cruelest elements of animal agriculture.
“We believe that a critical component of any successful food company is the responsibility—to our customers, suppliers, and the industry at large—to ensure the health and well-being of animals raised throughout our supply chain,” said Tim Smith, Blue Apron’s senior vice president and general manager of consumer products, in its June animal welfare standards announcement. All the company’s fresh eggs are from pasture-raised hens, none of the animals receive sub-therapeutic antibiotics and all growth promoters are strictly verboten. For pork, 100 percent “comes from pigs raised in group sow housing systems or in systems that do not use gestation crates,” he said.
In an email, Blue Apron spokesperson Louise Ward highlighted the word “or” in the company’s pork standard. “The pork that we were previously buying from Tyson was raised in group sow housing systems which allowed for 14 days in maternity crates, but still has group housing for sows during gestation,” she wrote. More about crate terminology later.
Tyson’s antibiotic-free Open Prairie Natural Pork brand in the meat aisle, meanwhile, is an example of the less-than-transparent world of food branding. Consumers have shown a willingness to pay a premium for things deemed “organic” or “natural.” The former has some articulable standards associated with it, while the latter doesn’t really have to mean anything at all.
In addition to the name itself, Open Prairie Natural is marketed with a logo showing green grass, a barn and open, blue skies. Nevertheless, the brand doesn’t make any explicit promises about crates or freedom of movement.
“Most of the pigs currently raised for the Open Prairie Natural Pork line are from farms that do not use gestation stalls and by the end of this year we expect all of OPN pork production to be gestation stall free,” Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesperson, said in an email. “‘Natural’ for OPN pork brand means that the pork is minimally processed, has no artificial ingredients, no antibiotics ever, and no added hormones or growth promotants.”
Demand for Open Prairie Natural Pork has increased significantly since it launched two years ago, he added. Former Chief Executive Officer Tom Hayes said the line had grown almost 75 percent by volume, compared with the prior year, in the company’s second quarter earnings call in May.
Blue Apron said it has ended its relationship with Tyson and is currently sourcing its pork loins from duBreton’s Certified Humane program, which doesn’t allow for the use of any crates. Its ground pork, though, is from Maple Leaf Foods, which it said uses “group sow housing,” a term that Blue Apron’s standards indicate could include maternity crates. Maple Leaf didn’t respond to requests for comment, but its website states that it’s on track to complete conversion of its 65,000 sows to open housing by the end of 2021.
“We are committed to being transparent with our customers about our ingredient sourcing, and do not believe our animal welfare policy or any of our public communications to be misleading or dishonest,” Blue Apron’s Ward said. “We stand by our policy, which was developed with the input of a wide range of animal welfare experts, including leading farm animal welfare organization Compassion in World Farming.”
By the end of 2019, Blue Apron said, 100 percent of its pork will be Certified Humane or Global Animal Partnership Step 1-certified. Both forbid the use of any crates.
“CIWF’s position has always been and always will be that we are against the use of cages or crates or any type of confinement system,” said Katya Simkhovich, food business manager at the organization. “While we advise companies on their policies and are mentioned in them, that isn’t necessarily a blanket endorsement of all the language in the policy.” Simkhovich did, however, applaud Blue Apron for its commitment to move toward a fully crate-free pork supply.
So what is the difference between a “gestation crate” and a “maternity crate?”
“It is the identical crate,” said Stuart Blankenhorn, Blue Apron’s director of category management for meat and seafood. “The difference is the time spent in it.” Fourteen days is significantly shorter than the typical period a sow will spend in conventional pork production and other forms of group housing, he said. In conventional production, the entire process entails almost four months in a gestation crate, followed by three weeks in a similarly sized farrowing crate to nurse piglets. The cycle repeats continuously, two to three times a year, for three or four years.
“It’s shameful to try to excuse cruelty to animals, including the confinement of mother pigs in tiny cages, with a euphemistic term like ‘maternity crate,’” said Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
All of this wordplay is a smoke screen, said Nik Contis, senior partner at PS212, a brand naming agency in New York. The term “maternity crates” is “using words to shift optics, to fool people,” he said. Tyson’s Open Prairie brand, he said, is misleading consumers about the origins of its pork. The images of an actual open prairie and a gestation crate “are diametrically opposed.”
— With assistance by Alex Barinka