The underbelly of Canada’s pork industry– the sow stall Part II

Canada’s pork industry was the focus of a 2012 Mercy For Animals investigation, and the video was released in December of that year. The new draft Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs was under development, and the issue of the day in the pork industry was – and still is – the use of sow stalls.

The video begins with eerie, unsettling music in the background, and as the camera pans across the sows in stalls, a female voice begins to narrate.

‘The footage you are about to see was recorded with a hidden camera by a Mercy For Animals Canada investigator.’

The camera then cuts to a piglet being slammed to the concrete floor by a worker, then to a sow with an eye infection. The voice continues, ‘It was shot at a Manitoba pig factory farm that supplies pork to WalMart, Superstore, Loblaw, and Metro.’

The video’s title, ‘Crated Cruelty’ is splashed across the screen, and the sows in stalls return.

‘Thousands of pregnant pigs are confined to filthy gestation crates so small, they are unable to even turn around or lie down comfortably for their entire lives. Driven mad from stress and boredom, these naturally curious and social animals have nothing to do day after day, hour after hour, but to bite the bars of their cages out of desperation.’

It’s only four minutes long, but with seamless edits and high production values, the film packs a punch – which was exactly what it was designed to do. Less than five months after it was released, the Retail Council of Canada announced that some of its major retailer members were voluntarily phasing out the stalls by 2022. Those retailers included Co-op Atlantic, Canada Safeway, Costco Wholesale Canada, Federated Co-operatives Limited, Loblaw Companies Limited, Metro Inc., Sobeys, and Walmart Canada.

The announcement of the 2022 retail phase-out came somewhat as a surprise to the hog industry in Canada. After all, the Retail Council of Canada was actively engaged with the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) as one of the stakeholders helping to develop the new pig code of practice. When the draft code was released on June 1 – a little more than a month after the Retail Council made its announcement – it proposed phasing out sow stalls by 2024. Did the undercover video trigger the decision? Stephane Perrais, director of operations for Mercy For Animals Canada, is confident it did.

“I think the investigation was a catalyst, and it certainly helped speed up the process,” he recently said in an interview with Western Hog Journal.

The new pig code is not complete yet. Its developers have to review the record number of comments submitted during the public comment period. The draft pig code received 4,700 comments. In contrast, the equine code received 600 comments, and that’s the second-highest on record. The beef code received only 482 comments. In fact, the pig code received more comments than all the other codes put together. It goes to show what a little well-timed publicity and pressure can do.

Like the battery cages, producers began using sow stalls to try and improve their animal husbandry. Some sows can be aggressive and others are extremely passive, and establishing a hierarchy results in serious animal injuries. The bullying that can occur can make it difficult for some sows to receive adequate nutrition.

“There was a strong animal care component to it, and it’s hard – they moved to these systems because they believed it would help with animal care, not just with economics. At the time it was the right decision and it was supported by groups like the veterinarians because of those reasons,” said Mark Fynn, animal care specialist for Manitoba Pork.

The pork industry has been hit hard by a number of market factors in recent years, and many producers have lost their farms. The recent Retail Council of Canada’s decision means that an industry barely keeping its head above water is going to have to find a away to retrofit existing infrastructure to comply with the group housing requirements. And the most modern research seems to indicate that while group housing can actually help improve production, it can also be a lot more difficult to manage.

“There are a lot of group housing systems out there that could be worse for the animals than stalls, and there might be some out there that are better for the animals. We’re investing fairly heavily in research to be able to implement some of the knowledge that we have to try and create some systems that are relatively optimal,” said Fynn.

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