Maple Leaf to set pigs free from cages
Follows the lead of U.S. pork industry

Dana Flavelle, The Toronto Star
February 1, 2007

Canada's largest pork processor is phasing out "sow gestation stalls" - small steel cages used to confine pigs during pregnancy - a week after its largest U.S. rival made the same move.

Maple Leaf Foods Inc. said the move to group pens will take place over 10 years and apply only to pigs raised in company-owned plants, not those it buys from other farmers.

Consumers will have no way of knowing whether the food on their tables came from a Maple Leaf farm or an independent producer, a company spokesperson acknowledged.

"We're in the very early stages of this process," said Jeanette Jones, Maple Leaf's director of communications.

"There's a lot more work to be done."

Animal-rights groups praised the move and predicted the company would set the trend for the rest of the industry.

"This is the most significant advance in farm animal welfare in Canadian history," said John Youngman, a director of the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals. "It addresses one of the very worst farm practices in Canada."

Some 1.6 million sows across Canada are raised in the 0.6 by 2.1 metre steel cages, which animal-rights groups and industry members agree are too small for the pig to move around.

Where the two groups differ is on whether the practice is harmful to the animal's health.

Maple Leaf and the Canadian Pork Council said there is no scientific evidence that allowing the pigs to roam in "group pens" is healthier for the animal.

Youngman said the cages, or crates, are harmful. The pigs live in them usually for at least two years, leaving only to give birth and be re-impregnated multiple times before they are "spent" and sent to slaughter.

But Saskatchewan hog producer Florian Possberg, an official with the Canadian Pork Council, said pigs in group pens can become aggressive and bite each other or steal each other's feed.

The largest U.S. pork producer, Smithfield Foods Inc., made a similar move last week after customers like McDonalds' Corp. and Safeway Inc. asked for the change.

The practice has been under fire for a number of years from humane societies and other animal-rights groups. The fact that a number of countries and U.S. states have moved to ban the crates was likely also a factor, Youngman said.

England stopped using the cages in 1999, while both Arizona, Florida and the European Union have moved to ban them.

Maple Leaf owns or has interests in about 120,000 pigs, representing about 25 per cent of the hogs its processes.

The company is currently restructuring its business with plans to reduce the number of pigs it owns within two years to about 50,000.