Monday’s Override Vote Seeks to Free Female Pigs From Cramped Cages

Joe Tyrrell | November 15, 2013 | More Issues
Does Christie's veto of a bill banning 'gestation crates' play more to an audience in Iowa than in New Jersey?

gestation crates
In a dispute that will have a greater impact on Iowa than New Jersey, humane groups are encouraging the Legislature to protect female pigs from being confined in cramped cages.

The state Senate has scheduled a vote Monday on an override of Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of a bill banning “gestation crates,” which are rare in New Jersey but commonplace among major pork producers in the Midwest and South.

The crates are metal bars set in concrete to create enclosures six feet long by two feet wide. That is not large enough for sows, which can grow to 600 pounds, to turn around. Many of the animals lack room to follow their normal behavior of lying on their sides.

But at many large-scale pork production facilities, the animals are confined to these narrow pens for several years of intensive breeding before being slaughtered.

Beginning in 2001 when Florida voters amended their state constitution, nine states and the European Union have banned the crates. Bans take effect over the next two years in Australia and New Zealand. Earlier this year, Canadian pork producers agreed to phase out the practice over the next 10 years.

Among major pork purchasers, Chipotle already bars gestation crates from its supply chain, and 60 other major food companies — including Campbell’s Soup of Camden, McDonald’s, Safety, Costco and Oscar Mayer — are following suit.

The New Jersey Legislature got on board this spring, overwhelmingly approving bills to require breeding pigs have enough room to stand up, turn around, extend their limbs, and lie down. The votes were 60 to five in the Assembly and 29 to four in the state Senate.

Then presidential politics seems to have intervened.

In June, Christie vetoed the legislation, although New Jersey farmers had not asked him to do so. In fact, chef Michael Clampffer of Mosefund Farm in Branchville, which has roughly one-quarter of the state’s breeding hogs, called the veto “detrimental” to pork farmers like himself.

Gestation crates are “inhumane,” he told the Huffington Post at the time, adding that for consumers, their use is “a big black mark” against pork producers.

“It’s not good for the animals,” said Clampffer. “They like to be outdoors, rooting around in the mud and basking in the sun.”

“I don’t know of any farmer in New Jersey who even uses gestation crates,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. The impetus for Christie’s action lies elsewhere, he said.

“While [this bill] doesn’t matter here, obviously it’s got national implications,” Murray said. “It’s a big issue in Iowa.”

Iowa happens to be both the nation’s largest pork producer and the scene of the first Republican caucus for the 2016 presidential election. There, Christie has forged an alliance with colorful Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a champion of industrial agriculture and an opponent of animal welfare efforts.

Christie has flown to Iowa for King’s annual fundraisers the past two years. The governor credited the Iowa congressman for being “the only guy who stood up for me” in Congress in 2009. At the time, a congressional subcommittee grilled Christie about his work as a U.S. attorney, when he appointed his former boss to a lucrative post.

Now, King is leading a push in Congress to undo state laws such as the gestation crate bans, and has successfully amended the House version of the pending Farm Bill to limit state-level regulation of agricultural products and practices.

Opponents fear it would not only eliminate the crate bans, but other state or local measures around the nation that define maple syrup; control animal waste; ban puppy mills and dogfighting; and sales of horsemeat for human consumption.

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Iowa has 20 million hogs, many raised in factory conditions far removed from traditional agriculture. A 2006 report by researchers at Iowa State University found the number of animals continued to increase even as the state’s hog farms plunged from almost 60,000 in 1978 to just over 10,000 in 2002, reflecting “industrialization” of pig farming.

That is a world away from New Jersey, where about a dozen small family farms hand raise a total of roughly 600 hogs.

Since June, the Governor’s Office has declined further comment on the issue, referring questioners to his veto message. In it, the governor said, “The proper balancing of the humane treatment of gestating pigs with the interests of farmers whose livelihood depends on their ability to properly manage their livestock best rests with the State’s farming experts,” the department and board of agriculture, whose regulations allow gestation crates.

The incoming president of the National Pork Producers Council, Iowa hog farmer Howard Hill, praised Christie’s veto for providing “a great example of a governor standing up to powerful lobbying groups on behalf of small, independent farmers.”

Hill blamed the Humane Society of the United States for promoting “unreasonable legislation in states with little pork production in an attempt to push a national agenda,” noting that some legislatures have rejected similar bills.

Matt Dominguez, an organizer of the Humane Society campaign, said bills to ban or regulate the crates are pending in several states, and success in New Jersey could send a “critical signal” of changing public attitudes.

More people are realizing that “to take a highly intelligent, highly social animal and confine it for its entire life in a space too small for it to turn around in is just wrong,” Dominguez said. Opinion polls show that “even people who like bacon do not want to see animals tortured,” he said.

But Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau, said the issue “doesn’t affect New Jersey.” The state has a tiny number of breeding hogs and few gestation crates have ever been used here, he said.

“The small number of farms that raise pigs here are generally ‘finishing,’ buying piglets and raising them for market,” he said. “It’s not like North Carolina or Iowa,” where breeding facilities control swine throughout their lives.

Echoing statements from the NPPC and Christie’s veto message, Furey pointed to the state agriculture department’s humane practices regulations, which allow the crates, and its complaint process. Organizations like the American Veterinary Medicine Association have endorsed gestation crates if used properly, he noted.

“We oppose the legislation and the veto override attempt because this bill is misplaced,” he said.

Another of New Jersey’s handful of hog farmers comes down in the middle. Well-known egg producer Matt Soldano of Southtown Farms in Mahwah recently branched out into pigs. He cited a growing demand for locally sourced agricultural products, including meats, but finds the political dispute irrelevant to his business.

“Gestation crates are terrible, I won’t use them,” Soldano said. “But at the same time, I don’t think it’s a government issue at all.”

If consumers object to animal husbandry practices, they should vote with their dollars and “these companies will be forced to change,” he said.

In recent years, even some allies of the pork industry have found fault with gestation crates. A 2004 study by researchers at Texas Tech University found that fewer than 40 percent of their 296 breeding sows could be “contained within the width of the conventional stall without protruding outside the bars or being compressed against the bars of the side walls.”

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“If anyone treated a dog or cat this way in our state, they would be prosecuted for animal cruelty,” said Kim Saunders of St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison. “Like the vast majority of New Jerseyans, we think humane treatment should extend to all sensitive animals.”

St. Hubert’s is holding a rally at 2 p.m. Saturday at its Madison site, 575 Woodlawn Ave., along with representatives of the HSUS and the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The event is intended to fire up supporters for last-minute lobbying of their legislators before Monday’s Senate vote and as-yet unscheduled Assembly action, according to Saunders.

Whether the issue is couched as morality, intrusion, safety or dollars and cents, the final decision still comes down to politics.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), sponsor of the Senate bill, S1921, conceded that the Legislature has yet to overturn a Christie veto. But this time is different for his Republican colleagues, he said.

“There’s no reason for them not to” override, because public opinion “overwhelmingly” supports the legislation and few if any New Jersey farmers would be affected, Lesniak said. The bill only requires that pigs not be kept “in unnecessarily cruel conditions,” he said.

For New Jersey residents, Murray said, “I don’t think there’s going to be any major backlash against anybody” in the Legislature who votes to overturn the veto.

But the scenario could look different to voters in Iowa, where other prospective presidential contenders might argue that “Christie couldn’t keep his Republicans in line,” Murray said.

So in Trenton, he said, the override vote on a minor matter should provide “a real good indication of Christie’s continued power” over the Republican caucus.

At least one Republican has already signaled his intention “to vote to override,” said state Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset). The close confinement of sows “is a terrible practice,” he said.

Discouraging its use by giant producers might actually help level the playing field for small farmers in New Jersey and elsewhere who practice traditional, humane care for their animals, according to Bateman.

The state Senate on Thursday advanced another of Lesniak’s humane practices bills. The Economic Growth Committee approved S-2369, which would ban “bear baiting” by hunters. That is the practice of setting out food to lure bears to be killed, which Lesniak called “immoral and equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel.”

Witnesses testified that bear baiting attracts the animals into areas that they normally would avoid, such as backyards, and causes them to associate the odors of food and humans. The bill also would require communities and campgrounds in bear habitat to dispose of trash in bear-resistant dumpsters and cans.

The Christie administration did not respond to multiple requests for comments on this story.