op ed articles

Manitoba Has The Opportunity To Lead On Animal Welfare

Lynn Kavanagh

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The animal agriculture industry is fond of telling the public their animals are well cared for. It’s often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so when the public is presented with an image of a sow confined to a metal-barred gestation crate barely larger than her body and told that this is where she must live for approximately two to three years, most people are aghast. The image does not reconcile with the notion of treating animals well. How can one claim to care about a creature and then confine her to a life of imprisonment and deprivation?

Animals are not intended to be confined and immobile for months or years, barely able to stretch their limbs, exercise, or unable to engage in natural behaviours such as nest building or rooting. It’s no wonder so many sows develop physical ailments such as arthritis, muscle atrophy, and body sores, not to mention the psychological distress and stereotypic behaviours such as bar biting and vacuum chewing.

Although some industry players are trying to hold on to established systems such as sow stalls by arguing animals are doing just fine, a growing body of animal behaviour and welfare research indicates otherwise. In other words, the writing is on the wall and others in the industry are, thankfully, beginning to acknowledge it.

TheManitoba Co-operator recently reported that Manitoba Pork is considering a recommendation to its producers to eliminate sow stalls. If this initiative comes to fruition, it will mark the second instance in Canada where a commodity group established an animal-welfare policy about confinement housing without being required to do so.

In March of last year, Manitoba Egg Farmers (MEF) announced a new policy, effective 2018, which states its producers must adhere to the Five Freedoms for farm animals, when building new or renovating hen housing.

• Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition — by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour;

• Freedom from discomfort — by providing a suitable environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area;

• Freedom from pain, injury and disease — by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment;

• Freedom to express normal behaviour — by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animals own kind; and

• Freedom from fear and distress — by ensuring conditions that avoid mental suffering.

Specifically, the policy requires housing systems to be either enriched cages or an alternative system which satisfies those criteria.

Despite the modest proposal, MEF is the first among agriculture producer groups in Canada to implement a policy which moves away from a confinement housing system for farm animals. In contrast, a number of U.S. states are phasing out the confinement systems of veal crates, sow stalls and battery cages. Sow stalls have also been banned in Great Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and the Philippines. Most recently, the state of Tasmania in Australia, and New Zealand, have instituted a ban to take effect in 2017 and 2015, respectively.

Although Canada lags behind other developed nations in its progress towards farm animal protection policies and legislation, Manitoba may be leading the way in changing that reality.

What form should a Manitoba Pork sow stall policy take — a recommendation or a directive?

There is no doubt some pork producers recognize stalls are on the way out, and are already moving towards open-housing systems. Others, however, may not appreciate being told to abandon stalls and switch to an open-housing system. Some may even refuse to do so, but at risk of loss of market share. New Zealand, for example, as an importer of Canadian pork, is talking of requiring importers to meet their new housing standard for sows once their policy takes effect.

For this reason, if Manitoba Pork is intending to improve the industry’s animal-care standards, they would be wise to follow the global tide of change and require its members to end use of sow stalls. It may be an unpopular decision for some producers, but it’s the right one. One only need look at a picture of a sow confined to a gestation crate — the image speaks for itself.

In addition to reasons of good animal health and welfare, there are excellent production and economic reasons to move to group housing. Improved health and comfort of sows mean they have an easier time farrowing, for example. Eventually producers will need to refurbish their barns and upgrade their equipment, and group-housing systems are less costly than stalls.

The time is ripe for change. As a voice for pork producers in Manitoba, leadership on this issue would show Manitoba Pork to be a progressive, forward-thinking body, one that listens to the public, pays attention to research, and rightly sees the future of commercial pork production as one that considers animals’ needs in addition to production goals.

Lynn Kavanagh is a director with the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals.