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Pig Code at the crossroads

Florian Possberg discusses the progress toward a bold new blueprint for farm animal care and the unique opportunity it represents for industry progress

Posted: March 12, 2013

Among all the new Codes of Practice under development for the care and handling of farm animals in Canada, arguably none has greater economic implications than the Pig Code.

This document is also gaining recognition as one of the most important opportunities for the struggling sector to set its future on a more positive track and strengthen its relationships in a fast-shifting marketplace with new expectations.

"Our industry has really gone through five years of hell in a hand basket," says Florian Possberg, chair of the Pig Code Committee. "This is one of our opportunities for a fresh start. It's important we get it right, for two primary reasons. First, for the job this document needs to do for the animals and for Canada to be a leader in farm animal welfare. It critical we do what's right by the animals and we address what's expected of us from the general public.

"Also just as important is to have something that is workable and makes sense for our producers, which is not an easy task at a time when there are few resources for any major changes. But because it's not easy doesn't mean we can afford to shy away from it. This document is very important as a building block to a successful and sustainable future for our industry."

What's the right direction to take? That's the question now on several fronts - from gestation stalls and space allowance to pain mitigation - as the sectors faces an important crossroads in addressing these issues.

Few are in a better position to evaluate what's needed than Possberg, who has lived the often dramatic ups and downs of the sector over a long spanning career. He has specialized in hog production since 1975, starting by building a 60 sow operation near Humboldt, Saskatchewan that grew into Possberg Pork Farms with 1200 sows. In 1995, he started Big Sky Farms where he was CEO until 2008. His family started Polar Pork Farms Ltd in 2009 and has 5400 sows. A long-time industry leader including on the animal welfare file, Possberg is a director of SaskPork and the National Farm Animal Health and Welfare Council. He also chairs the Canadian Swine Health Board.

As the Pig Code Committee works through outstanding issues and details en route to an expected release of a draft Code in June 2013, Possberg took time to share some of his perspectives on the progress underway and what the Code means for producers and their industry.

Perspectives on progress

Here are some highlights of the discussion:

Striking the right balance. Nobody said it would be easy. The Code represents a tremendous challenge to reach a balance that is good for the animals, achievable by producers and sustainable for the future, in a way that also addresses market needs and expectations. "It's a challenge that requires looking at things from a number of different perspectives," says Possberg. "That's an advantage of our committee, which includes diverse representation from industry, veterinarians, welfare organizations, regulatory bodies and others. We all come to the table with the goal to work together and build consensus to get a document that will do the job and is something that can work for everyone."

New Code, new role. Like many of the original Codes of Practice, the current Pig Code is badly out of date. It was developed in 1993 and industry has moved far beyond it in importance and relevance through other developments such as the Canadian Quality Assurance (CQA) program for pork. "The content has needed a lot of updating and also the role of Code as we envision it today is a lot different. The old Code wasn't really expected to be a template for hard and fast rules. The updated Code will be a much more structured reference document for both requirements and recommendations. It will also have a lot higher profile and relevance. It needs to be something that producers and industry can use in a practical sense that is also clear and acceptable to the general public.

Setting a template. The Code represents more than a guideline, says Possberg. It standards it sets will be integrated with expectations of the CQA program, which has become a required program for producers to comply with by most of the processors that buy Canadian pigs. "Our animal care standards and assessment approach are part of our CQA. So it won't be like the old days where the Code was referred to from time to time but not something most producers really focused on. The new Code will be very relevant and very real in a day-to-day sense. It will set the template for what the minimum animal welfare standards are for the production of pigs."

Delivering leadership. The approach Canada is taking is different than the approaches in the U.S. and Mexico, which are far less comprehensive and represent only voluntary guidelines. "We've had the courage to take our own path. I think our approach aligns well with the expectations today and will help us in the long run."

Proactive, not reactive. This type of approach has not been without criticism, he notes. "There is the philosophy in a big part of the U.S. industry that we shouldn't be held captive to special interest groups and that their long-term goal is really to eliminate people eating animals and anything you compromise is not going to satisfy them anyway. We're fighting a bit of that."


Florian Possberg

But to Possberg, Canada is not simply reacting to special interests. Rather, it is representing the industry needs and while being proactive in addressing the demands of the marketplace "We really have to be strong in our faith and commitment that we have a good, sound stewardship approach. We need our producers to support that and live up to it. And frankly, we need the general public to support that as well. The Code is a very important tool to get that public support."

Science-based approach. Key decisions related to the content of the Code have been enlightened by a comprehensive review of the scientific research, conduction by a scientists' committee of leading experts in their fields. "I believe our process holds up very well," says Possberg. "On all of the key issues, we really get deep into how the animal feels and what's the appropriate approach to take for the sake of our animals. We have also looked in depth at the implications for producers and the best options that will work for everyone."

Lightning rods: 'the big three.' While not in position to disclose specific requirements or recommendations before the draft is finalized and the public comment period begins, Possberg says three areas have stood out as focal points of debate and discussion - gestation stalls, space allowance and pain mitigation. "That's not going to surprise anyone. Those are the issues that are the most sensitive and we have looked at them in depth to find the best approach. These three will likely be the lightning rods when the draft Code comes out for public comment and that feedback will help shape the final document.

Planning for change. The committee has recognized there are major implications, including financial ones, for producers, he says. "Particularly if producers are expected to invest in their facilities to make changes to comply, we realize that's very difficult. Producers ask, 'how am I supposed to find resources to make changes to my facilities or my operation when I'm not making money.' And that's tough to answer because I'm not sure there is an answer in many cases."

To ease the burden of transition, the committee plans to include phase-in timeframes for a number of the requirements, says Possberg. "We all agree there needs to be a reasonable adjustment period."

Building trust. As the committee completes its work it regularly consults and communicates with industry leaders, as well as with retailers and others that sell pork products. "We need buy-in at every level," he says.

There are no short cuts and public acceptance will be the ultimate judge, he says. "I can't overemphasize this. At the end of the day, downstream from the production chain there needs to be an appreciation that we are really doing something proactive and responsible for the care, welfare and stewardship of our animals. They need to appreciate that this is a well thought out, comprehensive program. In return, we hope to gain a lot of good will and respect from the public that we are making these efforts and doing them for the right reasons. I'm confident at the end of this we will have upheld our part of that bargain."



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Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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