There has been a lot of media coverage about the recent euthanization of 1,300 piglets that were deemed to be in severe distress. The initial reaction by Karl Kynoch, chairman of the Manitoba Pork Council, referenced the litany of problems and the associated stresses faced by producers over the last several years making it difficult to earn a living.
Somebody must have whispered in his ear. His position soon changed to the lack of excuses for the mistreatment of the piglets, that the offender in question could have turned to other producers for help in relocating these piglets.
Kynoch was obviously responding to the public reaction to the incident, but there is ample reason why the pork industry should be more sensitive to public perception.
The provincial Animal Care Act prohibits the infliction of suffering on animals. Exceptions abound, however, including for industry-accepted standard practices. Today, these standard practices are the antithesis of what is traditionally known as the five freedoms for animal welfare: from thirst and hunger, by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain health; from discomfort, by providing appropriate shelter; from pain, injury, and disease by prevention, or rapid diagnosis and treatment; to express normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind; from fear and distress, by ensuring appropriate conditions and treatment.
One of the standard practices is tail-docking, where tails are cut off the piglets without anesthetic or painkillers. (Pigs bite each others' tails as a sign of aggression or dominance.) Castration of the males can take place at the same time also without anesthetic or painkillers.
For the males, the commonly accepted practice that is truly brutal is teeth cutting/breaking and snout breaking/bashing, intended to prevent fighting during transport. The bashing and tooth breaking involve both federal and provincial jurisdictions because it happens at collecting stations and auctions (provincial) but is part of the transport process (federal).
But when teeth are cut by untrained people with hoof nippers or bolt cutters, frequently teeth are cut to the pulp where the nerves are housed. A study done by the University of Guelph of 102 tusks recovered from a slaughterhouse showed 51 per cent had the pulp chamber exposed. Tooth cutting generally takes place the day before shipping. On the morning prior to loading, staff using a metal rod/crowbar or baseball bat will break the snout of the boar. Definitely inhumane.
There is absolutely no action to halt this practice by government inspectors.
At some facilities, large boars are bashed regardless of whether they are transported with other boars or not as this makes them more docile and easier to handle.
I'm not sure why tail-docking is a concern for the females (sows). Breeding sows have no opportunity to do anything that involves any type of movement. They are artificially inseminated and then kept in gestation crates (sow stalls) with virtually no clearance around their bodies for the duration of the pregnancy.
The big barns house thousands of crates, row after row, where sows can only look across the aisle at another sow in a crate. They never leave the gestation crate until shortly before they are due to give birth when they are moved to a similarly sized farrowing crate. Due to the physical restriction of the sow in the crate their young can nurse continuously in order to gain weight and size quickly. At the appropriate time the piglets are removed and the sow is once again artificially inseminated and she goes back into the gestation crate.
And so it goes until the sow is sent to slaughter after approximately three continuous years of this cycle.
The Winnipeg Humane Society has more than 10,000 signatures, from rural and urban Manitobans, on a petition asking for an end to the sow stall system. These petitions are sent to the provincial department of Agriculture, Farming and Rural Infrastructure (MAFRI) but no action has been taken.
The pork council has repeatedly stated it is studying housing options in conjunction with the University of Manitoba. It has been studying for many years. The rest of the world has managed to change housing systems over five years. Many countries have already phased out the use of stalls in favour of open or group housing -- once again farming in the manner that most of us think of when we picture livestock on a farm.
Surely one of these other countries has a system that would be viable in Manitoba? Recently, in response to animal welfare concerns, fast-food chains, (Burger King, McDonald's, Wendy's) and grocery stores (Safeway) have announced they no longer accept pork products from producers and/or suppliers who continue to use sow stalls.
The problems for producers are real: still recovering from the 2009 swine flu scare, the effects of the U.S. country-of-origin labelling laws, a strong loonie, weak pork futures and the rapidly rising increase in the price of feed. But this does not mitigate the routinely brutal "standard" practices accepted by the industry.
Producers and the pork council that represents them are often quoted in the media about caring for the welfare and well-being of their animals, after all a healthy animal is where they make their money. But if we look at how these standard, accepted practices relate to the globally accepted concept of the Five Freedoms, it is not difficult to understand the poor public image and hence lack of support for the big barn farms.
Leslie Yeoman is a Winnipeg animal welfare advocate who eats meat.