By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Market pressures, more so than laws and regulations, are likely to end the use of controversial practices in livestock production, according to an animal behaviorist.
The trend is already becoming visible, with major fast food chains and other restaurants prohibiting their suppliers from using gestation crates in hog production, said Joy Mench, animal science professor at the University of California-Davis.
The stalls are intended to prevent aggressive behavior among pregnant sows but are controversial because they restrict the animals' movement.
Mench said she expects the hog industry to end the use of crates within 10 to 15 years at the insistence of major pork buyers.
"It won't have been done through legislation. It will have been done by the retailers," she said during a March 13 lecture hosted by Oregon State University.
The battery cages commonly used to house egg-laying hens are also likely to become "history" as egg producers respond to consumer sentiments, Mench said. "They see the writing on the wall."
Some farm groups are developing standards for livestock husbandry aimed at addressing concerns about animal welfare, but this movement isn't likely to revolutionize practices, she said.
Labeling and certification programs that want to help consumers to identify "humane" livestock products are also likely to have a limited impact, as they represent a niche market that's generally associated with higher prices, Mench said.
On the other hand, auditing programs by major restaurant and grocery distributors and retailers could have a very broad and penetrating effect on husbandry practices, she said.
"The retailers have enormous impact on this," Mench said, noting that these companies want to protect their business by being perceived as socially responsible.
Animal welfare issues generally migrate to the U.S. about a decade after first arising in Europe, she said. While the U.S. is market-oriented, the European Union is more geared toward legal restrictions on livestock practices.
Current controversies in Europe over pain relief during castration and de-horning can be expected to eventually make their way to the U.S., Mench said. Transportation and slaughter practices will also probably attract more public scrutiny.