A December CTV W5 program titled Food for Thought has sparked a great deal of public attention.
The program reported on undercover footage taken inside a Puratone Corp. hog barn in Arborg, Man. The video released by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals captured many unsettling images of sows in distress, workers euthanizing animals improperly and a sow carcass being used as a trampoline, among many others.
Canadian consumers know little of how their food is produced and the reality is often a shocking contrast to the picture of farming they have conceived.
Market demands, rising input costs and the consumer desire for cheap food have pressured farmers to produce as much as possible in the most cost efficient ways.
Animal welfare may not typically be regarded as an economic issue, but it is in fact a critical issue for the industry to consider. Issues regarding the standards of animal welfare have the potential to greatly influence the economic future of Canada’s pork industry.
Pork producers have resisted adopting new management practices, but a global shift has already begun.
The European Union banned sow stalls on new farms in 2001, and existing farms were given until the end of 2012 to make changes.
Smithfield Farms, the world’s largest pork producer, announced in 2007 that it would phase out sow stalls by 2017.
Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s biggest pork packer, has made a similar commitment. Sow stalls will also be phased out in New Zealand, Australia, and several U.S. states within the next five years.
It is possible that the export potential of Canadian pork will be negatively affected if similar standards are required for market access, as is already the EU’s policy.
With heightened consumer awareness, it is reasonable to assume that many fast food companies, grocery chains and governments will continue to demand changes to livestock production.
The Manitoba Pork Council re-leased an action plan in 2011 that stated a commitment to phase out dry sow stalls by 2025, meet the five freedoms for animal well-being and certify producers under the national Animal Care Assessment program.
However, there has been little discussion on what steps are and will be taken to ensure these goals are met. With international change already taking place, Canada is lagging.
The pork council should consider reviewing its timeline for targeted change.
Manitoba’s pork producers often find themselves in a defensive position about many of their production practices.
Criticism should be used productively rather than disregarding it as the ranting of vegetarian animal rights groups or “tree hugger” environmentalists. It should also encourage the industry to review and refine its standard practices and principles.
Maple Leaf has argued that the disturbing practices recorded in the undercover video at the Arborg barn are the exception rather than the norm, despite the fact that the video was taken randomly.
The industry needs to take immediate action to ensure barns throughout Manitoba are operating at acceptable standards.
Pork producers have dealt with many challenges in recent years affecting their bottom lines. Changing standards will require a significant financial investment.
The Manitoba Pork Council estimates that implementing alternative housing systems will cost $500 to $600 per animal.
Cost-benefit analyses of alternative management practices need to be conducted to provide a better balance of economic efficiency, while also meeting market and consumer demands.
Government grants or subsidies could also help complete required changes in a timely fashion.
Animal welfare is not a local or activist issue; it is a global and economic issue and should be taken seriously by the industry.
Changes that are made will determine the competitiveness of the Canadian pork industry moving forward.
Kerri L. Holland is a PhD candidate in the University of Alberta’s political science department.