Dear Jon Stewart: Put down the activist Kool-Aid

I understand the "Daily Show" is a satirical television program, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie threatening to veto (again) a ban on gestation crates provides excellent fodder to poke fun at the potential presidential candidate.   

But Mr. Stewart, you didn't do yourself – or your audience – any favors. On Nov. 19, your five-minute segment focusing on gestation crates missed its mark and only further emphasizes the widening gap between urban consumers and pork producers.

More than one million adults tuned into your show on Nov. 19. Giving sound bites of activists opposing gestation stalls is a joke in itself. Of course it's easier to dictate changes while sitting comfortably behind a desk in a cubical with little – if any – past experience with modern pig farms than it is to be actually working in the gestation barn day-in and day-out!  

So, to help you out, here are eight things you may want to know about sow housing and the pork industry:

  1. Sows actually prefer gestation stalls: A "free access" maternity pen configuration developed in Europe enables sows to unlock their individual stalls at their demand and enter a common area. Interesting, the animals stayed in their individual pens willingly more than 90 percent of the time. And it makes sense, considering gestation stalls protect animals from aggressive sows.
  2. Pigs have a pecking order: When most consumers think of a pig, they picture a cute, cuddly Babe or maybe even a friendly Wilbur from Charlotte's Web. That's a nice image, but it doesn't necessarily reflect reality. Pigs are social animals with a social hierarchy and will fight until a "pecking order" is created. That doesn't sound too bad to the public until they realize that…
  3. Sows are huge and can be very dangerous: Sows can be up upwards of 500 pounds and when combined with the animal's natural aggression, sows will fight, wound and even kill one another if their access to feed is at risk. There are "boss" sows and weaker sows, and though the aggression between the two can be managed in a group housing situation, it isn't as easy as it sounds because…
  4. Group housing has drawbacks, too: Activists push that a ban on gestation stalls will solve everything, but it doesn't. Sow housing is a complex issue, as covered in this 2013 issue of PorkNetwork magazine. When pressed for evidence, the Humane Society of the United States backed up its claim that gestation stalls are inhumane using a 211-page document called, "The Welfare of Intensely Kept Pigs – Report of the Scientific Veterinary Committee Expert Working Group" that was adopted in the European Union in September 1997. In it, the paper points to one of the largest drawbacks of group housing: "The major disadvantage of group-housing is that injuries such as bites to the vulva or skin can occur, and it is also possible for these sows to slip on the floor. Fighting or injury could lead to embryo loss in extreme cases, and detection of health problems is more difficult. In general, better stockmanship is necessary to prevent these adverse affects." Click here to read more.
  5. Pork producers do care: Activists often paint pork producers and others working within animal agriculture as heartless businessmen and women capitalizing on the pain and suffering of animals. Of course, they don't want to see the emotional turmoil these passionate men and women faced as Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv) swept through their farms, killing nearly 100 percent of piglets infected by the disease. Workers in the gestation barn are no different, but that's not something these urban-based activists would ever know or want to experience themselves. Individual stalls give pig farmers the ability to provide specific care and attention to each sow. Thomas Titus, an Illinois pork producer, gave a great example of this as part of his #RealPigFarming story on Twitter.
  6. Hungry pigs are noisy pigs: Undercover activist footage often depict sows as "abused" as they loudly express what the activists interpret to be pain or abuse. But as Erin Brenneman, a PorkNetwork contributor and part of the Brenneman Pork family, explained in a commentary here, "It is certainly true that sows will cause a lot of racket at feeding time and it is absolutely necessary to wear your earplugs in the building for the 10 minutes while you get the feed ready to drop. They will bang on the feeders and scream for their feed to drop. Pregnant ladies are rarely known for their patience in waiting for meals. This is most likely when every single sad-looking video is taken, with sows foaming at the mouth and looking crazy."
  7. "Feelings" don't qualify as data: The late Dr. Stan Curtis, who studied how animals think and the effects of modern environment on them at the University of Illinois, believed evaluating the success or failure of gestation crates based on how an animal "feels" fails to qualify as a valid method. In his words, "As long as we can't yet measure how a pig feels, let alone measure the depth of any such feeling which everyone agrees we can't do we can only speculate, surmise, analogize and anthropomorphize."
  8. Not all states are drinking the activist Kool-Aid: Several states have defeated measures to ban gestation stalls, including Connecticut in March and New York in June. Ed Keller, president of the New York Pork Producers, explained that "the animal-rights groups had some early successes, but now that legislators are hearing both sides of the issue, they are choosing to allow the farmers to care for their animals the best way they can." It's worth noting similar measures in all of the top pork producing states have also been defeated.

Okay, okay – so you argue that it's a satire! You make your money mocking others. I mean, it's safe to assume that no one takes it as fact, right?

Answer: wrong.  

People don't grow up on or near farms anymore. Most American consumers are at least three generations removed from their agricultural roots. Considering how many people actually took Chipotle's 2014 three-part satirical comedy series as absolute fact instead of the fiction it was, it's clear how even a short, five-minute satire segment can ignited a chorus of sympathetic "ahhhs" and "ooohs" from an audience of already misinformed consumers and further push the activist agenda.

Here are a few sources that may give you a full picture of the issue at hand. I'll give you a hint: it's not as simple as it seems to the layperson:

Click here for Stewart's full clip.

 
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