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.