Animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has describes raising pigs in gestation crates as “asking a sow to live in an airline seat.” (Photo by Farm Sanctuary.)

Domino’s wants to be different. The company — once known for crap-tastic pizza and mediocre ad campaigns — has struggled in recent years to remake its image with an ironic campaign that admitted to poor quality followed by an effort to incorporate so-called “artisan toppings.”

Domino’s has been doing so much to reach out to food-conscious customers, says Kristie Middleton, outreach manager at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), that she’s surprised by its latest move — a decision to continue serving pork from pigs raised in gestation crates. “It seems like it would only make sense to include an animal welfare tenet as part of their rebranding,” she says.

Instead, it looks like Domino’s has other allies, including the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), an organization known for its staunch support of industrial agriculture and factory farming. In fact, this week AFBF came right out and endorsed Domino’s decision, complete with a photo of a sausage-covered pizza on the front page of its national website.

Domino’s is getting the royal treatment from AFBF because it’s one of very few holdouts, as the last six months have seen an avalanche of announcements by businesses including Burger King, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Carl’s Jr., Safeway, and Hormel (the maker of Spam), which have all expressed the intention to move away from gestation crates. Even Smithfield Foods — the nation’s largest pork producer — has agreed to phase out the crates by 2017. Eight states have also banned the practice, including Michigan, home to the Domino’s headquarters. (The chain’s top supplier is Tyson Foods, a company that has shown no interest in following the trend away from crates — and has even recently been in the news for continuing to embrace the practice.)

The crates, or cages, are used to confine between 60 and 70 percent of breeding sows in this country, and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin describes them as the equivalent of “asking a sow to live in an airline seat” (without lavatory privileges, mind you).

Earlier this month, despite this shifting tide, Domino’s shareholders decided to swim upstream and reject a resolution suggested by the HSUS for a ban. Not only did the Texas Farm Bureau applaud the move (Texas Farm Bureau’s Mike Barnett praised Domino’s for “showing some backbone to the animal rights activist group”), but AFBF has also embraced it on a national level. In fact, the AFBF site features a blog post by a farmer who describes not only buying a pizza from Domino’s in celebration, but leaving a thank-you note.

At the heart of the matter, say the critics of these bans, is whether the crates are in fact more harmful to pigs than other industrial practices. On the Texas Farm Bureau site, Barnett pretends to abdicate, but in fact does nothing of the sort. He writes:

The use of the gestation stalls — which confine sows during pregnancy — is at the center of the controversy. I’m not defending nor condemning their use. I truly don’t know enough about pork production to make that judgment.

Lacking knowledge, I’ll turn to the experts — the American Veterinary Medical Association – for their views on animal care. That organization says there are advantages and disadvantages to both cage-free and caged pork production methods.

While it’s true that the American Veterinary Medical Association has merely asked for more research on the issue, the HSUS also has veterinarians on staff who believe that the available research is quite conclusive [PDF]. And the Pew Environmental Group — which funded the respected Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production — says the crates are “among the least humane of industrial farm animal practices.”

Not that all pigs in confinement aren’t still, well, in confinement. Critics of the alternative — something called “group housing” — point out that pigs in close quarters are known to get bored and aggressive (and often have higher rates of injury). And despite the use of terms like “cage-free” in the PR efforts of the companies phasing out the crates, Middleton doesn’t see an end to gestation crates as a silver bullet for factory farming. “We don’t want consumers to think that just because these animals aren’t in cages that they’re being treated humanely.” Even group housing can be very crowded and must be well-managed to be safe for the animals, who are intelligent and get bored easily, she adds. “To ensure the better treatment of pigs in those group housing situations, we’ve seen farms that provide things like bails of hay just to give them something to do.”

HSUS appears to be shifting a very powerful industry with an incremental approach to change, by focusing on what Middleton calls the “most urgent” problems first. “At the very least, by going to gestation-free pork, these companies are helping spare animals from some of the worst abuses that happen in factory farming,” she says.

And it’s hard not to see how taking pigs out of crates the size of their own bodies — and letting them turn around on occasion — is a move in the right direction, even if Domino’s, Tyson Foods, and the AFBF don’t see it that way — yet.