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MINNEAPOLIS - Costco Wholesale Corp. has joined a growing list of retailers asking suppliers to phase outtight confinement pens for pregnant pigs.

The company took action after an animal welfare group shot an undercover video showing conditions at one of the chain's pork suppliers, Christensen Farms in Hanska, Minnesota. The video was taken for 10 weeks between December 2011 and March 2012, and is narrated by Bob Barker.

"Thousands of pregnant pigs confined to tiny metal gestation crates unable to turn around or lie down comfortably for their entire lives," said Mercy for Animals Investigations Director Matt Rice, describing the video. "Workers slamming conscious pigs into concrete in an effort to kill them, castrating and ripping off tails of piglets without any painkillers."

Rice says what is most egregious is the gestation stalls, which have been sparked a national debate across the agriculture industry.

Tuesday, Costco urged a phase out of the crates by 2022, by sending a letter to its suppliers.

Jeff Lyons, Senior VP of Fresh Foods, told KARE 11 that while the practice is considered humane in the pork industry, the company is concerned about the lack of movement over time, and in response to consumers, Costco will give its suppliers time to make the transition.

Rice says most major retailers have made changes, with the exception of Wal-Mart. He urged the public to watch the video and sign a petition at www.walmartcruelty.com.

Deisha Galberth Barnett, Walmart spokeswoman countered, ""We currently offer gestation crate-free pork products in a number of stores across the U.S. As soon as we were made aware of the video, we immediately reached out to our suppliers who source from this farm. If we determine that there was mistreatment, we will take action."

The Minnesota Pork Producers Association believes Mercy for Animals is motivated by a vegan agenda.

Executive Director David Priesler says gestation stalls are a longtime industry standard used to protect the sow, which can often be aggressive to other pigs and farmers. He says group pen housing often lead to more injuries for animals and caretakers.

"They actually prefer to be there. It may not be what someone likes to look at it, but it's safe for the animal and that is why they are used," said Priesler. "We want to make sure what we are doing is truly right for the animals."

Preisler adds that retrofitting housing would cost farmers $200 to $300 per sow, and that cost would be passed onto the consumer.

"The difference is we find it appalling, they find it profitable," said Rice.

Christensen Farms says it will evaluate other types of housing for pregnant sows, and has changed its euthanasia practices from manual blunt force trauma to carbon dioxide methods. The company says it is the largest family-owned swine producer in the country, with 1,200 employees and hog operations in six states.

"Taking proper care of our animals is our primary goal and essential to the success of our business," said Robert Christensen, chief executive officer of Christensen Farms.
"Over the years, we have continually challenged ourselves to improve our operational practices and compliance with industry standards. As one of the largest pork production companies in the U.S., we take our responsibility as a steward to the industry and the animal very important."

Researchers at the University of Minnesota farms in Waseca and Morris are currently studying how sows behave in alternative types of stalls. University of Minnesota veterinarian John Deen studies swine behavior and says sometimes group housing can be worse for sows, where they compete for space and food in a social hierarchy.

Several US states have passed laws banning gestation crates. The European Union is also phasing out gestation crates by 2013.

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