By P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO (Reuters) - New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed a bill Thursday that would have barred hog farmers in the Garden State from using gestation crates to house pregnant pigs - a move that comes as a blow to U.S. animal-rights groups.
In a statement, Christie said it was the role of New Jersey's Board of Agriculture and Department of Agriculture to establish "the proper balancing of humane treatment of gestation pigs with the interests of farmers whose livelihood depends on their ability to properly manage their livestock."
The bill generally would have made it a violation of animal cruelty laws to house a pregnant sow in such a way that prevented it to freely turn around, stand up, lie down or fully extend its limbs.
That this battle over gestation crates was being waged in New Jersey at all was unusual, as the state barely makes a squeal in the nation's pork industry. Farmers there raised barely 9,000 hogs in 2007, the most current USDA data. Iowa, the largest hog state, currently has about 20 million hogs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But the battle is part of a broader - and so far, successful - strategy that groups like the Humane Society of the United States and others have waged in a bid to force changes in the nation's barnyards.
Gestation crates are typically metal enclosures, about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide, in which a breeding sow is housed for much of her adult life.
The National Pork Producers Council praised the veto as a victory for farmers. "This is a great example of a governor standing up to powerful lobbying groups on behalf of small, independent farmers," President-elect Howard Hill said in a statement.
HSUS, a leading critic of the use of gestation crates, vowed to keep fighting the practice in New Jersey.
"I'm confident this bill will become law, one way or the other," Paul Shapiro, HSUS's vice president of farm animal protection, said in a statement.
Nine states currently either ban the crates or are in the process of phasing them out. A recent bid to pass similar legislation in Connecticut failed earlier this month.
Pork producers say these enclosures protect young piglets from being crushed by larger animals and to keep sows from fighting as they often will when housed together in larger pens. Animal rights groups say that such crates constitute inhumane treatment of the animals.
A number of food retailers - from McDonald's USA to The Wendy's Co - have vowed to only buy pork from farmers and other sources who do not use the enclosures, while pork producers Smithfield Foods Inc and Hormel Foods Corp have said they are phasing out the use of gestation crates in company-owned facilities.
(Reporting by P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)