Crate-free pork’s now the law at grocery stores in two states, not Illinois. Here’s what that means when you’re buying bacon.

Activists are fighting the use of gestation crates, saying they’re cruel. Some Illinois pork farmers disagree. It’s a battle with implications for shoppers in Chicago and across the country.

Pigs at All Grass Farms near West Dundee were born to sows that were never kept in gestation crates. They’re free to roam their pasture in the open air.
Pigs at All Grass Farms near West Dundee were born to sows that were never kept in gestation crates. They’re free to roam their pasture in the open air. Mark Black / Chicago Sun-Times
Pigs at All Grass Farms near West Dundee were born to sows that were never kept in gestation crates. They’re free to roam their pasture in the open air.
Pigs at All Grass Farms near West Dundee were born to sows that were never kept in gestation crates. They’re free to roam their pasture in the open air. Mark Black / Chicago Sun-Times

Crate-free pork’s now the law at grocery stores in two states, not Illinois. Here’s what that means when you’re buying bacon.

Activists are fighting the use of gestation crates, saying they’re cruel. Some Illinois pork farmers disagree. It’s a battle with implications for shoppers in Chicago and across the country.

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Unlike Illinois shoppers, people in California and Massachusetts don’t have to wonder whether the bacon they’re buying was produced humanely or whether the pigs were kept in gestation crates, cramped metal cages that critics say cause the animals to suffer.

That’s because it’s now illegal in those states for stores to sell pork from farms that use the crates.

That’s not the case in Illinois, where there’s no such law. Whole Foods stores, for instance, sell only gestation crate-free pork while, at some grocery chains, it can be hit-or-miss what shoppers find.

Some in Illinois’ powerful pork industry — the state is the fourth-largest producer nationally — oppose restrictions like those imposed in California and Massachusetts. They say they’ll try to block the new laws by seeking national legislation in Congress. They argue that the laws wrongly infringe on local farming methods.

Animal rights groups have been fighting against the use of gestation crates for decades.

“It’s not about not eating meat,” says Jessica Chipkin, founder of the organization Crate Free USA, who lives in Huntley. “It’s about being very aware of where your meat comes from and making sure the animals are treated humanely.”

Crate Free USA’s Jessica Chipkin, who lives in Huntley.
Crate Free USA’s Jessica Chipkin, who lives in Huntley. Stephanie Zimmermann / Chicago Sun-Times
The narrow metal crates — which are about two feet by seven feet, with slatted floors for the pig’s urine and feces to fall through — stand in long rows in large-scale farming operations that can house thousands of pigs. The crates are too narrow for pigs to have room to turn around.

In some farming operations, breeding sows spend a large portion of their life in a crate: four months in a gestation crate, then three weeks in a farrowing crate, where they feed their piglets until weaning. After a recovery period, the female pigs are inseminated again and put back in the crates.

The process continues for three or four years, until the sow is too old to breed and is slaughtered, says Josh Balk, a former executive with the Humane Society of the United States who now runs The Accountability Board, a shareholder activist group that pushes food companies toward humane practices.

“It is a practice that is not defensible,” Balk says of the crates.

Kate Brindle, public policy specialist for the Humane Society, says crated pigs are “lined up like parked cars. They’re virtually immobilized for their entire lives.”

Proponents of the crates say they make it easier to breed many pigs at once while allowing workers to safely administer food and water to each sow, which can weigh 400 pounds or more. They say sows can become territorial and attack each other and that putting them in crates eliminates fights.

Critics say pigs are intelligent, social animals and that forcing them to remain in a cramped position as they produce multiple litters is cruel. They say farmers who switch to group housing — in which multiple pigs are kept together in a small pen or a bigger enclosure — still can successfully manage their sows.

Legislation targets retailers

Eleven states have passed laws banning gestation crates in farming. The California and Massachusetts consumer laws are the first to target retail sales of pork.

In California, as of Jan. 1, stores are banned from selling fresh whole pork — including bacon but exempting ground pork, deli meat and precooked pork — that’s produced with the use of gestation crates regardless of the farm’s location. Approved by California voters in 2018, the measure faced years of legal fights until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld it in May in a 5-4 ruling.

Now, all fresh pork in California must come from breeding sows that are given at least 24 square feet of space. The law also sets space requirements for egg-laying hens and veal calves.

The Massachusetts law, which also has faced legal challenges, similarly bans the sale of pork, eggs and veal from producers who use confining crates.

Grocery chains in Chicago vary in their approach to fresh pork and bacon.

  • Albertsons, the parent company of Jewel-Osco, says it’s “responsibly increasing the quantity of pork we source from vendors that have made commitments to transitioning to group-housed systems for their breeding sows.”
  • Mariano’s parent Kroger says its goal is to source 100% of its fresh pork “from sows in group housing systems” by the end of 2025.
  • Whole Foods says none of its pork is produced with gestation or farrowing crates. A spokeswoman says the pigs are provided bedding in housing; they’re also not given supplemental growth hormones.
Whole Foods says its pork is 100% free of pigs that were held in gestation and farrowing crates.
Whole Foods says its pork is 100% free of pigs that were held in gestation and farrowing crates. Pat Nabong / Chicago Sun-Times
  • Costco says on its website: “Costco’s fresh pork and Kirkland Signature cooler items” are “exclusively sourced … from sows raised in group housing, limiting the time sows spend in gestation crates.” It says about one-third of its U.S. fresh pork supply meets California’s standards. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
  • Trader Joe’s sells some crate-free pork. But it also stocks non-crate-free pork in stores outside California and Massachusetts.
  • Target’s Good & Gather brand, which accounts for the “vast majority” of its fresh pork sales, has been 100% produced with open pens since September 2022. “Having achieved this, we are moving towards a true crate-free assortment in Good & Gather,” Target says.
  • Aldi says in an animal-welfare policy dating to 2019: “We expect our suppliers to pursue the elimination of crates for pregnant sows in favor of group housing” but didn’t include a deadline. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment.
  • Walmart also didn’t respond. According to its website, “Walmart and Sam’s Club U.S. will accept fresh pork only from suppliers that abide by the standards of the National Pork Board’s Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) Plus Program” — which doesn’t address the use of gestation crates.

Pork producers fight back

Some in the pork industry are supporting legislation in Congress, labeled the Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression Act, or EATS Act, that would make it illegal for states to “impose a standard or condition on the production or manufacture of any agricultural products” if that method is approved by any other state.

The Humane Society’s Brindle calls that a “lowest-common-denominator approach.”

Chad Leman, president of the Illinois Pork Producers and owner of Leman Farms in downstate Eureka, which produces 120,000 pigs for slaughter annually, says the proposal in Congress is needed to counter what he calls “absurd” state laws.

Leman envisions a situation in which another state might mandate even larger pig housing than California requires and says that would create chaos for farmers, who might have already spent $3,600 to $4,500 per sow on upgrades only to learn their work would now be obsolete.

“We are raising food animals, but others are looking at them as pets,” Leman says.

As a third-generation farmer, Leman says he remembers when pig farming was largely done on open lots. Water froze, fields got muddy, and workers struggled, he says: “There’s a reason why we went to doing it like we do now.”

Leman says he uses a combination of gestation crates and open pens, but none of his operations are compliant with California’s new rules. Providing extra space for each pig would require him to reduce capacity in his sow barns by 30%, he says.

“There’s no doubt Californians are going to have to pay more for their pork,” he says, which might affect demand.

Still, some in the pork industry already have made changes. Some producers are now fully compliant with California’s rules. Others are using gestation crates for a shorter portion of the breeding cycle — nine days or so — and then moving the pigs to open pens.

Small-scale approach in West Dundee

Then, there are small-scale farmers like Cliff McConville of All Grass Farms near West Dundee, who raises pigs, chickens, turkeys, beef cattle and dairy cows there and at a second property near Elkhorn, Wisconsin.

McConville doesn’t have breeding sows. He says he buys 2-month-old piglets from a pasture farmer in western Illinois who doesn’t use gestation crates.

Cliff McConville with some of the pigs on his farm near West Dundee.
Cliff McConville with some of the pigs on his farm near West Dundee. Mark Black / Chicago Sun-Times

McConville says getting piglets that were raised naturally and then putting them on his pasture, where they can dig in the soil and forage for food, helps ensure that they have strong immune systems without antibiotics. He says their food is supplemented with leftover milk, cracked eggs and discarded vegetables.

Pasture-raised, organic-fed pork chops at McConville’s farm store cost $12.95 a pound, compared to $3.79 a pound at Aldi for center-cut chops. But he says his natural approach results in better-tasting, healthier meat.

“They get to root, they get to forage, they’re very playful,” he says of his pigs. “We look at it as: They have a really good life, and then they have one bad day.”

Pigs roam around All Grass Farms near West Dundee.
Pigs roam around All Grass Farms near West Dundee. Mark Black / Chicago Sun-Times