Planned North American Phase Out of Gestation Stalls Creates Concern Among Pork Producers

CANADA - Decisions by two of North America’s largest hog processors to begin phasing out the use of gestation stalls have come as a shock to Canada's hog producers.
calendar icon 17 February 2007
clock icon 9 minute read

Smithfield Foods and Maple Leaf Foods to Eliminate Gestation Stalls

Last month Smithfield Foods, the United States largest pork processor, announced it plans to replace sow gestation stalls with pens or group housing systems in all of its contract producer barns over the next 10 years. Within days of that announcement Maple Leaf Foods announced that it will follow the U.S. industry lead and phase out gestation stalls over the same period.

In a company release, Maple Leaf states that It endorses the direction of the U.S. industry in phasing out the use of sow gestation stalls in favor of group housing, and will follow this initiative at all company-owned hog production operations within the next 10 years.

Canada’s largest pork processor acknowledges, “While the science concerning the benefits of sow gestation stalls is sound, Maple Leaf has studied alternative housing methods for some time and actively supports initiatives which respond to consumer opinion as well as the science, in making decisions about the welfare of animals in the Company's care.”

Maple Leaf indicates it fully supports the U.S. industry lead and as an integrated North American industry it is essential these types of changes be uniformly implemented.

Despite the decision not all hog producers are convinced the elimination of gestation stalls is in the best interest of the animals.

Marketing Factors, Not Animal Welfare Behind Phase Out

Florian Possberg, the CEO of Humboldt, Saskatchewan Big Sky Farms and the first vice-president of the Canadian Pork Council (CPC) notes that both companies have acknowledged that this was in response to public pressure and marketing concerns and that the science of group housing over gestation stalls was, at best, probably a draw. However the marketing considerations made them sensitive to the marketing realities and caused them to move in the direction of abandoning gestation stalls.

Possberg recalls, “When I started producing hogs in 1975 all my sows were in group housed pens. We went to stalls because we really believed it was superior for the animals in terms of properly feeding the animals to meet their needs and prevent aggression between animals and so on. From an animal welfare point of view we believed, and still do, that gestation stalls have a lot of value in terms of animal welfare.”

However Possberg admits, the general public just doesn’t accept that. “The thought of limiting the movement of animals in a small space is just generally not something that people can warm up to so there’s some realities there. For the whole industry though to move towards abandoning gestation stalls, it creates issues.”

Manitoba Pork Council Endorses Accepted Codes of Practice

Andrew Dickson, the general manager of Manitoba Pork Council, says his organization’s position on the issue has been consistent for many years.

“We’re guided by the codes of practice that are set out by national bodies. We recommend to farmers that they follow codes of practice. In those codes they describe the various systems that can be used to house gestating sows.”

“These systems are all reviewed by national bodies which include veterinarians, researchers, humane societies and so forth and the science to date, from our perspective, indicates there are pros and cons of all these systems and it’s up to producers to figure out what would fit best in their particular operation.”

Dickson stresses, “Council is not in a position to start saying one system is better than another. There’s no science to say one system is better than another. These are matters of choice.”

He also notes, Smithfield and Maple Leaf, are both saying that their decisions are based on marketing reasons. “In other words the people who buy their products are asking them to have product come from a particular style of housing the sows and Manitoba Pork Council accepts those decisions.”

Winnipeg Humane Society Applauds New Industry Direction

“We really have always been encouraging the hog industry to move away from that system [gestation stalls] towards a straw based group housing system,” says Winnipeg Humane Society executive director Vicki Burns.

“I think the Maple Leaf Foods and the Smithfield Foods announcements recently about phasing out gestation stalls is a tremendous red flag to the industry,” she says.

SPCA Supports Science Based Approach

The Saskatchewan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the organization responsible for enforcing the animal protection act in Saskatchewan, doesn’t have a specific policy with regards to gestation stalls. However investigative services coordinator Ian MacMillan notes the society is interested in the welfare of animals and supports improvements in the conditions in which animals live.

“I’m aware there are welfare benefits to both [gestation stalls and group housing] and there are welfare considerations in each situation. There are pros and cons with both setups. What we would support is a science based approach to it and we would expect that the experts would do the research that would show us which is the best.”

MacMillan notes, the animal protection act states animals have to receive adequate care, meaning adequate feed, water, shelter and care including veterinary care and be free of distress. It also says they are to be free of injury or pain and they’re not to be neglected or abused.

“We don’t receive a lot of complaints from barns specifically about gestation stalls. I haven’t received any complaints in the four years that I’ve been involved with the organization about the stall situation,” he says.

SPCA Endorses CPC Animal Care Assessment Tool

MacMillan applauds the Animal Care Assessment Tool (ACA) that has been put into place by the Canadian pork industry. “It’s not only a good program but it’s one that’s a verifiable program. It goes along with an auditing process so that the training and the record keeping are done so that we know that the people are at least familiar with the proper way to do things.”

“When you have a program that’s proactive like that it goes a long way toward preventing the kind of things that we would hear about, so I’m a big supporter of the ACA program.”

Possberg recalls, “When the Canadian Pork Council developed its animal care assessment program the issue of gestation stalls was one of the items that was brought forward and we said there’s a reason why we use gestation stalls.”

He believes the process of determining whether there’s really a good alternative in terms of group housing to replace gestation stalls needs to be given due diligence to be sure it is a progressive step and that process is under way.

Dickson agrees, “I think it would be unfortunate if producers were forced to adopt a system because of reasons other than those that are based on recommended ones in the codes of practice and good science.”

Burns, however, argues there are examples of other countries that have gone through this kind of transition in the last ten years or even 20 years and she believes it would be worth it to pay attention to how they’ve managed it so producers can make the changes here in a more efficient fashion.

She notes, “Sweden, 20 years ago, made a big decision and legislated that they would no longer allow those intensive confinement systems and they insisted on a deep straw bedded system and we really should look to that.”

Gestation Stall Phase Out Expected to Result in Reduced Pork Production

Burns concedes, “The reality is we may not be able to produce as many pigs as we currently are. That’s also why we should be promoting the idea that consumers are going to have to pay more for a pound of pork in order to compensate farmers fairly. I certainly am a proponent that farmers need to be compensated fairly for the work they’re doing in raising animals.”

“If you move away from using the gestation stalls, it’s most likely that you’ll have to decrease the number of sows that you’re housing and ultimately the number of pigs that are being produced. But, if you’re being paid more per pig and if you don’t have to bear the capital cost of building those terribly expensive systems with gestation stalls, hopefully the farmer will come out ahead in the end.”

Change Must Come for the Right Reasons

“It’s a big step so it takes time to make sure we’re doing things properly,” says Possberg.

“In the UK they actually banned gestation stalls back in the mid 90’s and it was enforced by 1999. We’re told there were examples where group housing replaced gestation stalls and the conditions the animals were under were quite deplorable quite frankly. I don’t think the general public wants to enforce something that creates a hardship for animals. I think if we're going to move in a direction it should be for the right reasons. That’s why it needs to have the proper time and energy spent on it to make sure that, if there’s an evolution to a different system, that it’s really done for the right reasons.”

MacMillan agrees the Canadian pork industry is being proactive.

“They understand that some of the things that they have done in the past have raised concerns and they've been trying to address it and we support those initiatives to change what ever can be changed.”

“I know that there are issues in the general public regarding gestation stalls and I would hope that changes are made based on science and we would support those.”

Possberg admits, “Whether we’ll eventually phase out gestation stalls in North America, who knows. It may very well happen but it’s important that we, number one, be concerned about the real welfare of our animals on a day to day basis.”

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