Crate-free pork is on the rise in some Illinois grocery chains, but not everywhere

When you pick up fresh pork chops from behind the glass at Mariano’s, you can be sure the product came from a farm that does not use gestation crates — metal enclosures so small the pigs kept in them can’t turn around.

The no-crate policy, a response to both animal welfare and climate change issues, is new for the grocery chain, and it has begun to take shape across the country as grocers and states take on standards and laws that ban the use of the contentious enclosures for farm animals.

The crates have long been criticized by animal rights supporters, but environmentalists say banning them is also a step in the right direction when it comes to addressing pollution from industrial animal agriculture operations.

“Why do gestation crates matter for environmental impacts or public health impacts? Because the fundamental change that happened in our agricultural system when we started to see the rise of these really industrialized facilities in the ‘70s, and then ramped up in the ‘90s, is the basic business proposition to put as many animals on as little space as possible,” Tyler Lobdell, a staff attorney with nonprofit Food & Water Watch said. “The core way that this industry has accomplished that to such an extreme degree is with extreme confinement — gestation crates being a really great example of that.”

Since the 1950s, U.S. meat and dairy production has more than doubled, while the number of operations has decreased by 80%, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.

Confined animal feeding operations, better known as factory farms, are known sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Waste from the industry has also been a long-standing concern when it comes to water contamination.

Lobdell added while restricting the use of gestation crates won’t solve everything, it is indicative of rolling back “the fundamental problem” of maximizing production while minimizing expense.

“That expense comes in the form of having to control their pollution, which they don't do well,” he said.

Sows in a row of gestation crates, metal enclosures that have been subject to legislative and grocer policy restrictions due to animal welfare and environmental concerns. Photo courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States

Gestation crates are typically used to keep sows for the 16-week period that they’re pregnant, or gestating. The sows are moved to a slightly larger enclosure while nursing their piglets before ultimately returning to the gestation crate.

“Most people are totally disconnected to the story of the animals that feed us. They go into a grocery store and they see a shrink-wrapped package of pork,” said Jess Chipkin, founder of nonprofit Crate Free USA. “That's why one of our goals is to spread awareness of how these animals are fed, how they live their lives — and there are other options.”

Pork products in plastic packaging line the cooler at a grocery store in New Orleans last April. Associated Press

The most common alternative to gestation crates is group housing, in which sows can move around freely and socialize with their pen mates.

Chipkin, who lives in Huntley, formed the organization in 2015 as Crate Free Illinois before expanding nationwide. The group leads campaigns to petition grocers including Aldi and Trader Joe’s to phase out gestation crates from their supply chains.

Trader Joe’s has provided crate-free pork since 2018, though it also stocks non-crate-free pork in some stores.

And while Aldi’s Animal Welfare Buying Policy states, “We expect our suppliers to pursue the elimination of crates for pregnant sows in favor of group housing,” the document did not provide a timeline and has not been updated since 2019.

Aldi did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile at Jewel Osco, the company said it encourages its vendors to limit the use of gestation crates for breeding sows in favor of group-housing systems.

“Looking ahead, we are committed to updating our goal of increasing our sourcing of group-housed fresh pork, including setting measurable sourcing targets, which we plan to publish in early 2025 and report on annually thereafter,” a company spokesperson said in an email.

The topic is especially salient in Illinois, which is the fourth-largest pork producer in the nation. In 2022, 10.4 million pigs were raised for pork production in the state.

While Illinois does not have a restriction on the use of gestation crates, states like California and Massachusetts have recently made it illegal for stores to sell pork from farms that use them.

A step up from prohibiting in-state pork producers from using them — the crates are banned in 10 states, including Florida since 2002, Arizona since 2006 and California since 2008 — the laws have had unprecedented implications on interstate pork commerce including here in Illinois.

California’s law in particular was bitterly fought by the national pork industry. The battle ended at the Supreme Court, which upheld the law.

Sows rest while others freely move around a gestation pen on farm run by Jared Schilling in Walsh, Illinois. Schilling has made his farm compliant with a California law that promises to get breeding pigs out of narrow cages that restrict their movement. Associated Press
Jared Schilling of Walsh, Illinois, once used these arrow gestation crates , photographed in 2023, but eliminated them after making his farm compliant with a California law that promises to get breeding pigs out of narrow cages that restrict their movement. Associated Press Photo

Though new to the U.S., the restrictions are all too familiar to producers in the European Union and Canada. Gestation crates were banned in the EU in 1999. Canada is looking to ban new crates by 2029.

Instituted in 2014, Canada’s ban was delayed in part to allow farmers time to comply. That’s because transitioning to group housing requires an entirely new system — and the change is often costly.

“I haven't met a farmer that's trying to do a bad job. It's a balance. It's about having the capital cost to be able to meet the conversions,” said Yolande Seddon a professor of swine behavior and welfare at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan. “There's different system designs, and early adopters are the ones that go through the most trial and error rate. There is a lot of communication in the community about what is working and what is not working to try and support success.”

In addition to allowing the easy management of a large number of pigs in a small area, industrial pork farmers often cite physical aggression between animals as a reason to use gestation crates.

Seddon said addressing aggression when transitioning to group housing can look different for each farmer depending on factors like genetics and housing design.

At Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, farmer Jody Osmund uses pig hutches that resemble Quonset huts in place of crates. Osmund’s pigs generally roam free outside, eating grass, rooting in the dirt and getting “to act like pigs,” he said.

“Our pigs being friendly and docile is important for us,” said Osmund, who moved to his farm from Des Plaines in 2002. “Temperament is a highly inheritable trait and can be selected. For about the last 40 or 50 years, hog farmers have not had to select for good temperament because the animals are in a steel cage all of their lives.”

Farmer Tom Arnold, who raises pigs on his family farm of 135 years near Galena, added aggression is often a stress factor and sometimes, “it’s just a matter of giving the animal space.”

On Arnold’s farm, sows choose their own pen when they’re ready to have their piglets, freely coming and going while they nurse.

Tom Arnold feeds pigs at his family farm of 135 years in Elizabeth, near Galena. Niman Ranch

Arnold is part of Niman Ranch, the food company that began supplying Mariano’s with fresh pork in 2023. When Arnold joined the network, he found he was able to get a price for his product that reflected the care he put into his farm, which was not possible on the general market.

It’s a similar story for Osmund, who sells directly to consumers through a subscription service called Community Supported Agriculture.

“Most commodity farmers take whatever price is presented to them. They don't have any say,” Osmund said. “I raise superior hogs in ways that ensure they're healthier, the meat they produce is healthier, and it's much more tasty. I can find consumers that are willing to pay a premium for that, and I can make a living. Being sustainable is not only taking care of the land and the animals and the environment, it's also taking care of the farmer.”

• Jenny Whidden is a climate change and environment writer working with the Daily Herald through a partnership with Report For America supported by The Nature Conservancy. To help support her work with a tax-deductible donation, see

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