Just because animals are purposely raised for slaughter doesn't mean they should be kept in conditions that are brutish and miserable. While some animal rights groups have effectively pressured companies to change their practices, lately it's marketplace forces that are creating the necessary environment that makes it unprofitable for meat processors to maintain the status quo.

Gestation crates. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

When Smithfield Foods was sold to a Chinese meat processor last year, it banned the use of the weight-gain drug ractopamine because it is banned in many European countries, as well as China and Russia. Merck ended up suspending production of the similarly situated drug Zilmax following Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN) halting its use after meat packers stopped accepting Zilmax-fed cattle. The drug, which had been used for years and was declared safe for both cattle and human consumption by the Agriculture Department, caused cows to gain as much as 35 pounds before they were led to slaughter. 

And last month, Tyson told U.S. cattlemen they were going to have abide by animal welfare rules like those it has in place for pork because it was coming under pressure from McDonald's and Whole Foods Market to change its ways.

Tyson came under tremendous pressure last year heading into its annual shareholders meeting to change the way its hogs are treated. Animal rights organizations and private equity firms alike called on the meat processor to ban the use of gestation crates, confining cages that prohibit a breeding pig from doing little else but stand stock-still for the duration of their four-month pregnancy. They're then placed in another cage to give birth, reimpregnated, and put back into the gestation crate. More than 80% of breeding pigs in the U.S. are held in such crates.

Smithfield Foods just announced that it too is asking all its contract hog farmers to phase out the use of gestation cages. The meat processor already has in place plans to phase out their use here in the U.S. by 2017, and says 54% of the transition is completed, but it wants the rest of its global network of growers to do so as well by 2022. Both Hormel and Maple Leaf Foods also have plans in place to phase out gestation crate use within the next few years.

Indeed, much of the food service industry has moved in that direction. From fast-food chains like McDonald's and Burger King Worldwide to grocery stores such as Kroger and Costco, the move for humane treatment is becoming widespread, and possibly got its biggest push forward in 2012 when food-service giant Sysco committed to establishing a gestation crate-free supply chain.

So, while Tyson can be seen as one of the latecomers, as its distribution channel brings more pressure to bear, it acknowledges its policies must be more than just about treating pigs humanely. After all, it's a "three-protein company" -- beef, chicken, and pork -- and all of its protein providers will need to abide by its animal welfare rules.

While many of these commitments by processors and suppliers afford the companies as much as a decade to come into compliance, they at least hold out the promise that animals will one day be able to live out lives that go beyond the Hobbesian condition of being "nasty, brutish, and short."