by Marion Nestle
Feb 22 2012

The infamous Chipotle video: will it help get rid of gestation crates?

In an op-ed in the New York Times this week, Blake Hurst takes on the Chipotle video that got national attention when played during the Grammy Awards. 

If you have not seen this advertisement for Chipotle Mexican Grill, it is well worth a look

Coldplay’s haunting classic “The Scientist” is performed by country music legend Willie Nelson for the soundtrack of the short film entitled “Back to the Start.” The film, by film-maker Johnny Kelly, depicts the life of a farmer as he slowly turns his family farm into an industrial animal factory before seeing the errors of his ways and opting for a more sustainable future. Both the film and the soundtrack were commissioned by Chipotle to emphasize the importance of developing a sustainable food system.

The video has had immediate effects.  Hurst, a former hog farmer who is now president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, notes that “The day after it ran, McDonald’s announced that it would require its pork suppliers to end the use of gestation crates.”  Unfortunately,  as Grist points out, this announcement could just be “porkwashing” since the company neglected to say by when. 

And then Bon Appétit  Management Company announced a comprehensive animal welfare policy that phases out gestation crates by 2015.

Hurst defends the use of sow gestation crates. 

These crates do restrict pigs’ movements, but farmers use them to control the amount of feed pregnant sows consume. When hogs are grouped in pens together, aggressive sows eat too much and submissive sows too little, and they also get in violent fights at feeding time. The only other ways to prevent these problems are complicated, expensive or dangerous to the pigs.

Really?  I was a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.  Our report, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America, came out in 2008.

During the course of the investigations that led to this report, we visited an industrial hog farm in Kansas where I got a first-hand look at sow gestation crates in (in)action. 

I knew about sow crates, of course, but even so was completely unprepared for the sight of a pregnant sow confined between bars that allowed her only to stand up, lie down, and eat—during the entire 115 days of her pregnancy. 

When we asked why this was necessary, we got this answer: it is easier for the managers. 

  • Workers do not have to be trained in animal husbandry.
  • Cleaning chores are easier. 
  • Feed can be measured.
  • The sows cannot fight.
  • The sows cannot kill their babies.

Seeing my evident distress, Bill Niman, who was also on the Commission, offered an antidote.  The next day, we drove 100 miles or so and visited Paul Willis’s hog farm.  This is featured in another Chipotle video

Willis claims that his relatively free-range sows (confined in fields by electric fences) are nearly as productive.  His animals get to roll in the mud.  They do not fight and do not kill their piglets.

Yes, their meat ends up on the plate no matter how the animals are raised.  But means matter as much as ends. 

Kindness to animals is a  mark of humanity. 

Getting rid of sow crates is a good idea, and the sooner the better.