Maple Leaf to phase out sow gestation stalls

Jeanette Stewart, The Star Phoenix
February 1, 2007

An industry lobby group is telling producers to proceed with caution after Canada's largest pork producer announced plans to alter its production methods in order to counter consumer criticism.

Maple Leaf Foods Inc. announced to shareholders Wednesday it will gradually phase out sow gestation stalls over the next 10 years and move to group housing of swine, following the lead of the pork industry in the United States.

"We're not opposed to Maple Leaf and the direction they're going. What we're saying for the whole industry is that we want to do that with some caution," said Florian Possberg, vice-president of the Canadian Pork Council.

He said the council is re-evaluating production methods and wants to make sure it incorporates animal welfare into any changes.

"If we're doing something for the perception of the general public, rather than the benefit of the animals and, quite frankly, the profitability of our business, that's tough to do," Possberg said.

Pork production experts say keeping pregnant sows in gestation crates rather than group housing makes no difference in animal health.

"In terms of their productivity and their behaviour, the difference between pigs in groups and not in groups doesn't appear to be all that much," said Lee Whittington, information services manager at the Prairie Swine Centre, an independent research institution dedicated to pork production.

Maple Leaf's announcement to phase out gestation stalls comes after a similar announcement made recently by Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the U.S. Gestation stalls have drawn criticism in the United States, and resulted in both Arizona and Florida passing measures to outlaw it.

A Jan. 25 press release issued by Smithfield Foods states its decision is a result of consumer concern over the gestation-stall method of housing pregnant sows.

In Saskatchewan, gestation stalls are the most common management method. Pregnant sows are kept in small, individual stalls during their four-month pregnancy. This allows for individual monitoring and feeding.

The system also prevents sows from moving around or socializing, which has sparked criticism from groups like the Humane Society of the United States, who have labelled the practice cruel and abusive.

Maple Leaf spokesperson Jeanette Jones said the company is confident it can convert operations within the 10-year time frame, but acknowledges the potential challenges.

"There is obviously significant work required as well as investment," she said.

While only Maple Leaf farms are crossing over right now, Possberg, also a large-scale hog farmer, said the decision sets the bar for the industry. As a result, other Canadian companies may have no choice but to bow to public pressure.

"It's a marketing issue as is anything, and to be in the game, perhaps that's the direction you have to go," he said.

Possberg said he can see many producers exiting the industry as a result of pressure to convert. He said the greatest financial challenge will come for those who have just invested in gestation stalls.

"We're living in a pretty tight-margin business, and to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for individual producers – that would be pretty tough," he said.