Developing an animal welfare code of conduct for Canada’s hog industry has been contentious, controversial and costly, says a Canadian Pork Council official.
Associate executive director Catherine Scovil told a recent National Farm Animal Care Council conference in Ottawa that while the code has been a work in progress since 2009 and the industry supports it, the process has been hijacked by the issue of sow housing.
“It has become all about sow housing as the key issue,” she said.
“The danger in this is that it minimizes everything else in the code. I do worry that we are losing sight of everything else in the code that isn’t as controversial.”
The code proposes group housing for hogs after 2014, which has become a major industry issue since the proposal became public and open for comment, Scovil told the conference.
“It has become a difficult conversation in the public comment period,” she said.
Many producers think group housing is not necessarily best for hogs, which can be aggressive and inflict injury on other pigs in the pen.
“They see the best outcome as maintaining the welfare of animals and the worst outcome is more injury.”
Still, the code calls for different housing arrangements, feeding protocols and space for hog group dynamics.
Scovil said the industry is committed to the animal welfare code that is becoming standard in the livestock sector, but there are significant costs to convert current barns to new standards.
She estimated it could cost more than $1,000 per sow to change existing housing arrangements.
“That’s half a billion dollars for our industry as a whole,” said Scovil.
“Given the economics of the industry in the past few years, there is a risk that banks will not extend the credit to make this conversion work.”
As well, she said there is no public commitment to share the cost for conversion of hog facilities, despite a public policy demand that animal welfare rules change.
“There is no indication of cost sharing, and this is a real sore spot,” she said. “Producers are being asked to do these things, but there is no financial incentive to do what is necessary.”
Scovil said some producers have told the pork council they may leave the industry if they have to make costly changes without compensation.
There is also the broader issue of who speaks for society and what is expected.
Activist groups are vocal and some retailers are setting their own rules, but farmers are not always clear.
“There’s lots of fear, and some producers are wondering why there is a code,” she said.
“There’s lots of fear, and sides are being taken. Farmers are insulted that their practices are being challenged so publicly.”