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Despite Prestage Farms' reputation, NCSU pleased to take its $10 million



"I saw a sow with a large abscess on her rump. The area was swollen to the size of a baseball and was oozing a thick, white viscous substance."

That's how an undercover investigator's notes read in a 2012 report on Clinton, N.C.-based Prestage Farms.

But that news wasn't mentioned last month when the Prestage family donated $10 million to North Carolina State University, one of many state institutions hurting for public dollars. For their largesse, the Prestage moniker will be emblazoned on NCSU's poultry science building and the entire department will be named for the family.

But the people behind the animal welfare investigation say Prestage's money would be better spent on improving conditions for its farm animals.

"They should be ashamed that money isn't going to convert those cruel, hideous cages to group housing situations," says Mary Beth Sweetland of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which conducted the investigation. "It's galling that it would go to having their name put on a building."

HSUS sent an undercover investigator into one of Prestage's hog farms—the company raises both pigs and turkeys—in Oklahoma to document conditions there. The investigator documented "suffering," "cramped" conditions and illnesses and injuries that weren't immediately treated.

The report centers on Prestage's use of gestation crates, in which sows are kept on some industrial farms during their four-month pregnancies. The crates are constructed of metal bars, like a jail cell door, and set in rows. Each open-air crate contains one sow and shares a metal-barred wall with the stall next to it. The sows cannot walk or turn around.

The cages are not illegal, but since sows can't move, they can develop abscesses and lameness. Once a sow reaches breeding age, about one year old, she will spend the rest of her life in a gestation crate, save the few weeks between pregnancies when she weans a litter.

When they are no longer considered productive, sows are then slaughtered for people to eat.

"The weight of the sow sitting on it [the abscess] had caused it to burst," the investigator's notes continue, "and even though she was now lying on her side the size and pressure that had built up under her skin was causing it to leak a constant stream of purulent discharge."

Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University and a leading expert on animal welfare. Grandin, who spoke at the Carolina Meat Conference this week, consults with the meat production industry to improve slaughter and production conditions. "We need to get rid of them and they need to be phased out," she says of gestation crates. "People are not going to accept it where sows are living in cages where they can't turn around their whole lives."

Several companies have committed to fully phasing out gestation crates, including the world's largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, which promised to eliminate them from its operations by 2017.

But Prestage has not publicly committed to stop using gestation crates. In a statement to Indy Week, Prestage representatives wrote, "We utilize both types of sow-housing systems for our gestating sows. Whether raised in group or individual housing, we are committed to sound animal care."

Group housing puts 10 to 20 sows inside a single pen with a freer range of movement, but it can cut into company profits. "It does take about 20 percent more space," Grandin says. "So there's no cost incentive."

But Todd See, a pork production professor at NCSU, says that group housing poses its own set of problems. He says that because hogs are aggressive, living in group pens can lead to fighting injuries.

"Every time you take a pig in or out, they fight again to re-determine the hierarchy," he says. See, Grandin and Sweetland of HSUS agree that infighting is an issue; one of the keys to successful group housing is correctly bunching the pigs. Sows of similar size and age need to be put in the same pen, which requires diligent oversight.

While See recognizes a public demand for group housing, he doesn't believe it has significant advantages over gestation crates. "We tend to anthropomorphize. A lot of people look at it and say, 'I wouldn't want that for me.'"

The head of the new Prestage Family Department of Poultry Science, Mike Williams, has no qualms with the company's reputation and its $10 million endowment. "I reject the notion that it would be any kind of a bad thing," he says. "They made it clear that they want us to continue our efforts on animal health, food safety and animal well-being."

The endowment will pay for research, teaching and extension programs as well as a turkey physiology professorship.

"I know we can debate the gestation crate issue," Williams continues. "They are common practice. Some producers have a plan in place to get rid of them. Frankly, I'm not sure what the Prestage position on that is."

William H. (Bill) Prestage created Prestage Farms for turkey production in 1983, according to the company's website. Soon after, the company started hog farming and now has operations in five states. According to HSUS, Prestage is the nation's fifth-largest pork producer.

This is not the first time a university has named a college or department—much less a building—after a donor. NCSU, for instance, is home to the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the Lonnie C. Poole Jr. College of Management.

Both Fitts and Poole, like the Prestage Family, technically gave an individual rather than a corporate donation. But Fitts made his fortune by starting a paperboard packaging company called Dopaco that makes take-out containers such as cups and fast-food hamburger boxes, and Poole founded the garbage-hauling giant Waste Industries.

At the Prestage poultry school unveiling, N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson said, "In an environment where state funding is challenging, where federal funding is challenging, increasingly we rely on private contributors to keep the university strong, and we couldn't be more pleased."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Hog hell."

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