I can understand Chris Christie's dilemma – either signing an enormously popular bill to ban gestation crates in New Jersey or caving in to the veto demands of Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, whose support is coveted by every aspiring Republican presidential candidate who trudges through Iowa. There's no mystery that Christie is closely examining the idea of running for president, and that the state's first-in-the-nation caucuses often winnow the field and set up the front-runners.
But defying Governor Branstad might be just what Christie needs to prove he's no handmaiden of the political class in this country or of a trade association whose views are way out of step with mainstream sentiment.
Any rational observer of the debate over gestation crates must conclude that they are on their way out. The overwhelming bipartisan votes in the New Jersey Assembly and Senate in favor of Senator Raymond Lesniak's anti-cruelty legislation, along with all of the favorable media attention, are just the latest indicators of the public's strong opposition to the cruel practice of locking breeding pigs in tiny crates for nearly their entire life. The Star Ledger, New Jersey's largest paper, correctly noted that the use of gestation crates "is inhumane treatment, that is beyond debate."
This issue has been on state ballot three times – first in Florida and then in Arizona and California – and each time voters approved the ban by ever-wider margins. In Arizona, the conservative sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, was the pitchman for the HSUS ballot initiative to ban the crates. In 2006, 62 percent of Arizonans voted for the ban. California voters approved a similar ban with nearly 64 percent of the vote, with the measure even winning in much of the state's more conservative and agriculture-dominated Central Valley.
Six other states, by act of their legislatures or state rulemaking, have passed laws to phase out the crates, including the major pig-producing states of Colorado, Michigan and Ohio.
But those public policy gains are less compelling than the revolution that's occurring in the food industry. More than 60 of the biggest names in food retail have said they want to cleanse their supply chains of pork from outfits that confine the sows so severely. In announcing it would phase out its purchase of pork from farms that confine sows in crates, McDonald's – which buys perhaps 15 percent of all pork bellies in the United States -- said gestation stalls "are not a sustainable production system for the future. There are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows." Denny's said that banning gestation crates "is best for our company, our guests, and our continued work to improve animal welfare."
During the last two and a half years, almost every big name in food retail has gotten on board, including fast-food giants Burger King and Hardee's, supermarket chains Kroger and Safeway, food service providers such as Aramark, Compass and Sodexo, and middle-America restaurants such as Bob Evans and Cracker Barrel.
But the argument that really clinches the case is that some of the biggest pig producers have decided to get out of the crates business. Smithfield and Cargill have made pledges to rid their production systems of that form of extreme confinement. Tyson has indicated it wants to move in that direction.
So if these big players are saying it's the right thing to do, you know it's also economically feasible for them to do so.
Australia, Canada, the European Union and South Africa are already there, or on their way.
As Christie contemplates banning gestation crates, there can be no question that his home-state residents favor the policy. A recent poll found 93 percent of them want to ban the crates.
And while Governor Branstad and the Iowa Pork Producers Council are urging Christie to veto the bill, they are now representing an extreme and losing proposition. The world is moving forward, and that includes the vast majority of Iowans. In fact, one poll showed that only two percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers would be less likely to support Christie if he signed the bill, while 37 percent would be more likely to support him. The Des Moines Register said "crates may no longer have a future in pork."
Chris Christie can show he's his own man, doing the job he was elected for in New Jersey. Or he can pander to a few Iowa politicians and a trade group that is in denial about the imminent demise of gestation crates not only in the United States, but throughout the world.
The nation, and not just New Jersey animal advocates, are watching to see if he passes a basic test of decency and political acumen, or whether he buys a pig in a poke.