Altered pigpens planned

Maple Leaf adopting group stalls for pregnant pigs

Gabrielle Giroday, Winnipeg Free Press
February 1, 2007

IT'LL be no more lonely, cramped nights for pregnant pigs. In an effort to please consumers, the largest pork-producing company in Canada is changing the way it stores its female breeding pigs in crates.

Maple Leaf Foods Canada said Wednesday it will use group pens and stalls to store sows during their pregnancy, instead of individual pens. Sows are female pigs of breeding age that bear piglets for slaughter and public consumption, and one expert estimated they spend about 55 per cent of their life in the pens.

"It's just fantastic news. I'm absolutely thrilled about it," said Vicki Burns, executive director of the Winnipeg Humane Society. She said she keeps an empty gestation crate in her office to show students conditions she considers inhumane for animals.

Animal-rights activists have long decried gestation crates where sows are stored during their almost four-month pregnancy. They're lauding the end of small metal pens they complain prevent sows from freely turning around or lying down.

Burns said pork companies should also place straw on the ground of sow storage facilities so they can root around for items to chew, which she said is a natural instinct.

"I cannot conceive of any reason why we would feel it was humane to keep any animal so confined that they can't turn around for their entire adult life, and that was what was happening to mother pigs," she said. "The (crates) are only a bit wider than their body so they can take a step forward and a step backward."

It'll still take 10 years to create group pens for all sows, said the company.

Following an announcement last week by U.S. company Smithfield Foods, which is the largest pork processor in the world, Maple Leaf said it's following suit.

A Maple Leaf spokesman said sows make up about 25 per cent of the company's overall pig population in its Brandon plant.

The company's website says the Brandon plant has processed up to 43,000 hogs per week.

It's a move to please customers, and there's no admission on the part of Maple Leaf Foods Canada that individual sow gestation stalls are harmful to the creatures. The company press release said "no conclusive evidence exists that one leads to better herd health than another, or is a superior production technique."

Lee Whittington, manager of information services for the University of Saskatchewan Prairie Swine Centre, said he doesn't think group pens will necessarily be an improvement for sows.

"Sows are quite large and can be quite difficult with each other, and so whenever there's more than two or three of them in an area and they have to share that space, they do have to spend some time determining who the dominant animals are, and establishing a pecking order," he said. "They can get beat up rather badly."

Whittington said the animals can receive broken bones from fighting, but would get more exercise and social activity from interaction with other animals in group pens.

"Our decision around making the change is certainly related to the fact there is growing consumer opinion that people feel group housing is a more humane way of housing sows, irrespective of fact there's sound science for the current form of sow gestation stalls," said Jeanette Jones, Maple Leaf director of communications. She said research does not indicate group pens are better for sows, and did not know how much the cost of updating the pens will cost.

"We take care to weigh both consumer opinion and science. Despite the fact that the science is inconclusive, we were more than satisfied to be on the leading edge of change."