Growth of Manitoba pork industry not a source of pride
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MANITOBA is the largest producer of pigs in Canada. Ads currently plastered on buses and billboards across Winnipeg extol the virtues of the industry as a major economic driver and showcase hog farmers as stewards of the environment and even protectors of pigs. The industry is growing, reports the Free Press, with almost eight million pigs farmed here annually. Biosecurity, sustainability and animal health have all become top priority in pork production, claim those who peddle it. Surely, Manitoba’s pork industry is something we can all be proud of.
Or is it all just marketing magic?
Manitoba Pork chair Rick Prejet recently told the Free Press that the province’s expanding pork industry is actually “not particularly profitable” these days. In truth, it’s costing us a lot.
Though the number of pigs farmed here has increased at least sevenfold since the 1970s, with at least 40 new jam-packed warehouses built in the last five years, still the number of overall farms has dramatically decreased in the last five decades.
The industry tends to describe this as “efficient,” growing fewer pigs, but much larger, in less space. Animal advocates call it a welfare nightmare. The average number of hogs per warehouse in Manitoba is nearly 6,000, according to the province.
“Raising more pigs at fewer facilities requires more intensification,” explains Kaitlyn Mitchell, Manitoba lawyer with advocacy group Animal Justice. This means confining the animals indoors with little space to move around. And female breeding pigs, she says, have it even worse. “They spend much of their lives confined in crates so small they cannot even turn.” Mitchell says these industrialized conditions “put profit over the health and well-being of animals and are a far cry from what most people think of when they imagine life on a farm.”
The Winnipeg Humane Society has long advocated for local pork producers to transition away from gestation crates. Though the industry pledged in 2014 to phase out the crates by 2024, stakeholders now want that deadline extended to 2029.
“The blatant disregard for a pig’s need to walk, turn around, and move freely,” says WHS’s animal welfare specialist Brittany Semeniuk, “is one of the biggest welfare violations that continues to exist in modern day pig production.”
To make matters worse, Manitoba’s two hog slaughterhouses, in Neepawa and Brandon, utilize terrifying C02 gas chambers to render pigs unconscious before they are stabbed and bled out. Undercover footage from a U.S. slaughterhouse, obtained by activists last fall and shared by the New York Times, shows panicked pink pigs being lowered into the gas. They scream and thrash violently, gasping for air before eventually passing out. According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), this method is considered “humane.”
At Manitoba Pork’s recent annual meeting, producers got an update on new sustainability regulations. Vicki Burns, former CEO of the WHS, now with Hog Watch Manitoba, is not optimistic. “In the industrial hog factories that dominate the industry in Manitoba, the pigs are living on slatted floors above pits that contain their urine and feces,” she says. The toxic gases, including hydrogen sulphide, methane and ammonia emanate from the pits, and “would suffocate the animals within a couple hours” without ventilation, she says. “Those toxic gases are then blown out into the neighbouring community, and depending on which way the wind is blowing, become a real health hazard to people living within a couple of kilometres to the hog factory.”
The liquid manure collected by the farms, she adds, is then flushed out and pumped into lagoons which are emptied once a year. “The liquid manure is spread on local fields to be used as fertilizer, but some of the phosphorus and nitrogen in that manure may run off or leach from the soil. It will then make its way via ditches and streams into lakes contributing to the growth of blue-green algae.”
Perhaps Manitoba Pork is working so hard to keep pigs on our plates because consumption has seen a steady decline in recent years. Market research company IBISWorld reported in 2021 that pork consumption in Canada over the past decade fell almost 12 per cent per capita. This decline, it states, “is largely the result of increased public awareness of the medical risks associated with red meat consumption.”
Most pork products cannot even be legally advertised as “healthy.” Last summer, the CFIA found that local radio ads referring to “thick, juicy pork chops,” “tasty pork tenderloin” and “crazy good pork burgers” as “healthy” did not meet the agency’s requirements to do so and required Manitoba Pork to take corrective actions.
Ultimately, Manitoba being labelled the “bacon capital of Canada” means being dubbed a hub of factory farming, animal suffering and the production of a Class 1 carcinogen.
There’s no pride in that.
Jessica Scott-Reid is a Winnipeg-based freelance journalist and animal advocate.