Move away from gestation crates could improve Canadian pork’s image

By Georgi Gyton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: North america, Livestock, Pork

Pigs housed in gestation crates. Photo credit - The HSUS
Pigs housed in gestation crates. Photo credit - The HSUS
The Canadian pork industry could have stood to lose CA$1.7bn annually, over the next 15 years, had the decision not been made to move away from the use of gestation crates, animal welfare group Humane Society International (HSI) Canada has claimed.

Last month a new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs was published, which includes a ban on the lifelong confinement of pregnant sows in gestation crates. Developed by the National Farm Animal Care Council, factories built or renovated after 1 July 2014, will be required to use group housing systems for pregnant sows.

Sayara Thurston, campaign manager, HSI Canada, told GlobalMeatNews​ that this was a "hugely important development both in the long term, as the industry as a whole moves away from gestation crate housing, but also in the short term, as a good proportion of barns in the biggest pork-producing provinces are on the verge of being renovated".

She explained that while producers can continue to use existing gestation crate barns until 2024 (the deadline for transition to group housing systems), many producers will make the change ahead of this date.

HSI Canada, which hailed the new Code as an historic achievement for the welfare of farmed animals in North America, had previously commissioned a study, published in November last year, to examine the potential market losses for the Canadian pork sector, both domestically and internationally, if it failed to make significant welfare improvements, said Thurston.

It suggested that the industry stood to lose significant ground to international competitors, particularly in the newly-accessible European Union, if a move away from gestation crates had not been made swiftly and effectively - with financial losses potentially amounting to CD$1.7bn per year.

Thurston said HSI Canada believed the move to group housing systems would definitely have an impact on the pork industry’s international image. Canada’s recent trade agreement with the European Union "has been lauded as the potential economic saviour of an industry that has struggled financially for some time",​ said Thurston. However pork producers in the EU have been required by law to house sows in group housing systems since January last year.

"European producers have already begun to question whether they will be protected from imports of products that are not held to the same welfare standards, and whether or not the EU would introduce trade restrictions on products that do meet their welfare standards. Major European buyers could easily choose not to buy Canadian pork products if they received pressure from their domestic industries,"​ she said.

According to HSI Canada the use of gestation cages is common practice in North America, with the animals so tightly confined that they cannot even turn around. However, a number of retailers in North America, including McDonald’s and Burger King, have issued a mandate to switch to more humane housing, and leading North American pork producers, such as Smithfield, Hormel, Tyson, Olymel and Maple Leaf Foods, are moving away from gestation crates, it said.

Meanwhile, in April 2013, the Retail Council of Canada and eight of Canada’s largest retailers, including Walmart Canada, Loblaws, and Costco Canada, committed to sourcing fresh pork products from alternatives to gestation crates over the next nine years, according to the HSI.

Thurston added: "When Olymel announced that they were requiring their producers move away from gestation crate housing, one of their primary cited reasons for doing so was that many of their buyers are in the Australian market; the Australian industry as a whole is voluntarily moving away from gestation crate housing by 2017, with both major grocery retailers requiring that all fresh pork products come from facilities that do not use gestation crate housing, including imported products."

On the introduction of the new code Jean-Guy Vincent, chair of the Canadian Pork Council, added: "The Canadian Pork Council and its members are proud of the new Pig Code and the credibility the entire process lends to its creation. The new Code is a source of tremendous pride. It represents our commitment to the animals in our care, the sustainability of our industry, our ability to work collaboratively with a diverse stakeholder group and the leadership we provide to a global industry."

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