By STEVE KARNOWSKI
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Costco Wholesale Corp. on Tuesday joined a growing list of retailers and restaurants in asking suppliers to phase out the use of small pens for pregnant sows, as an animal welfare group prepared to release an undercover video showing conditions at one of its suppliers.
Gestation stalls have been a major target of groups like Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, which say they're inhumane because they keep sows so tightly confined that they can spend most of their lives and multiple pregnancies with too little space to turn around or even sleep on their sides.
Mercy for Animals' video was shot by one of its investigators in a sow barn at Minnesota-based Christensen Farms, which describes itself as the country's third-largest pork producer. The group made the video available to The Associated Press before its public release Wednesday. But on Tuesday, Costco gave the group a letter it was sending to pork suppliers urging a phase-out of the crates by 2022. Mercy for Animals' director of investigations, Matt Rice, supplied the letter to The Associated Press.
Rice commended Costco's decision. It follows similar decisions by other major food retailers in recent months, including the Safeway and Kroger chains. Rice said his group would turn its attention to the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which he said also buys pork from Christensen Farms.
A spokeswoman for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, Deisha Galberth Barnett, said the chain offers gestation crate-free Harvestland brand pork products in a number of its stores across the U.S. She said the company will continue to have discussions with its suppliers, groups and food safety experts to find ways to increase that number.
"We believe in offering our customers a choice," she said.
National restaurant chains that have asked their suppliers to stop using gestation stalls include McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Hardee's. Joining the list this week were Sears Holding Corp., which owns Kmart Corp. and its 25 Super Kmart stores that sell groceries, and ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co., which also makes a variety of frozen foods and sauces that contain pork.
Costco's vice president of food safety, Craig Wilson, said the Issaquah, Wash.-based company had been working on the issue for a long time, and the timing was a coincidence.
Sleepy Eye-based Christensen Farms, backed by pork industry advocates, defended the practices seen on the video. It showed sows in gestation cages as well as other industry practices often criticized by animal welfare groups, including the castration of piglets and docking of their tails without anesthetics and the killing of sick or injured piglets by slamming them against the floor.
"We have reviewed the video and have noted no exceptions to our company procedures or industry," chief executive Robert Christensen said in a statement.
Christensen Farms says it raises 3 million pigs a year, with 1,200 employees in Minnesota, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. The company issued a separate statement saying it decided in February to switch to using carbon dioxide to euthanize sick and injured piglets as an alternative to "blunt-force trauma."
Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said animal welfare groups are targeting gestation stalls because their real goal is to dissuade people from eating meat, partly by making it more costly. Mercy for Animals advocates for veganism, he noted.
Advocates of gestation stalls say sows placed in group pens tend to fight, which leads to injuries and submissive sows losing out on food. The American Veterinary Medicine Association and American Association of Swine Veterinarians say science doesn't provide a clear answer on whether gestation stalls or group pens are better for sows.
Harry Snelson, communications director for swine veterinarians, said the video wasn't pleasant to watch, but nothing he saw rose to the level of animal cruelty.
Mercy for Animals video from Christensen Farms: http://www.walmartcruelty.com
Mercy For Animals main site: http://www.mercyforanimals.org
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.