Opposition to sow stalls appears to have reached a tipping point in North America.
McDonald’s, Burger King, Tim Hortons, Wendy’s and Safeway have all announced plans in the last four months to eventually buy pork only from farms with open housing systems.
The corporate decisions represent a victory for animal welfare organizations in Canada and the United States, which have called for an abolition of sow stalls for more than a decade.
If sow gestation stalls have indeed reached a point of no return, then leaders of Canada’s livestock industry will need to ask themselves a difficult question: should they work more closely with animal welfare advocates in the future or should they continue to fight their campaigns from a distance?
Cam Dahl, general manager of Manitoba Beef Producers, said it’s critical to engage the public in conversations about animal welfare.
But there’s a big difference between those concerned about animals and those determined to eliminate animal agriculture.
“We can’t let the activists be the only ones that are having a conversation with the majority of the public,” said Dahl.
“That vast majority in the middle, who we call consumers, are starting to care a lot more about issues like this. That question, where does my food come from, is being asked a lot more frequently.”
Dahl said the decision by fast food restaurants and grocery stores to buy pork only from open housing systems is simply their response to consumers.
“They’re not doing that out of a feeling of benefiting the greater world. They’re doing it because they think their customers want it.”
John Maaskant, an Ontario chicken producer and former chair of the Ontario Farm Animal Council, has a similar view, but he thinks activists get these results through intimidation and threats of bad publicity.
He thinks companies are more concerned about image and market share than they are about animal welfare.
He added that producers need to meet with food companies and other customers to explain their production methods and choices.
“Promoting good animal welfare and continual improvement of animal welfare, based upon the best available information … is very, very important for us to be involved in.”
Melissa Matlow of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) in Toronto admits she is an animal welfare activist and a vegetarian.
However, that doesn’t mean she dreams of a day when all Canadians are vegans and all slaughter plants are closed.
“I don’t advocate others to follow my lead. I’m very happy with people just being conscientious eaters,” said Matlow, campaigns manager with the WSPA.
She said the divide between animal welfare advocates and livestock producers is overstated.
“I think our viewpoints become more polarized in the media because it makes a great story,” she said. “We might have a different definition of what good welfare is, but the intentions are still the same.”
Matlow may believe it’s acceptable for Canadians to eat animal protein as long as sows are raised in open housing and chickens aren’t overcrowded, but many vegetarians don’t take that laissez faire approach to meat.
Last fall, the Toronto Vegetarian Association ran ads in the city’s subway cars with the image of a Jack Russell terrier and a baby pig and the tag line, “why love one and eat the other?”
The WSPA encourages people to eat less meat because it believes the level of global meat consumption is unsustainable, but Matlow said consumers should pay more for meat from livestock producers who farm in a manner that’s kinder to animals.
Premiums for humane animal protein are an attractive concept, but Canada’s livestock industry needs to protect itself from downside risk, said Allan Preston, former Manitoba Agriculture assistant deputy minister, veterinarian and operator of a mixed farm near Hamiota, Man.
“In an ideal world, you’d like to be able to capture the premium that might be there in the supply chain, by doing A, B, C and D.
“But, in actual fact, sometimes it’s more a matter of avoiding the discrimination or the loss of markets by not doing it,” he said.
“I’m growing increasingly concerned that we’ll see non-tariff trade barriers based on animal welfare standards.”