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Ground shift on welfare: Action on sow stalls

With big players from Costco to Walmart, to Olymel and Tim Hortons weighing in, the stage is set for a transition to new approaches by the end of 2022.

Posted: May 8, 2013

It's no secret that sow stalls have been at the forefront of the animal welfare discussions swirling around livestock agriculture.

In Canada, the signals in recent months have pointed clearly to this as an area where change was going to come. The environment had shifted solidly away from 'would it happen?' to simply waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Last week it did.

The key action was the release of the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) Grocery Members' Commitment on Sow Housing, which calls for a shift to alternative sow housing by the end of 2022.

Members backing the commitment include major food retail players Co-op Atlantic, Canada Safeway, Costco Wholesale Canada, Federated Co-operatives Limited, Loblaw Companies Limited, Metro Inc., Sobeys Inc., and Walmart Canada Corp.

Flurry of activity with major implications

The move confirms a shifting of the ground on the sow stalls issue around a specific timeframe. It comes in the wake of other key recent announcements over the past month, including by Tim Hortons and Olymel, which have similarly committed to move away from the use of sow stalls by the end of 2022.

Related developments grabbing headlines in the same timeframe also include the passing of a motion by Calgary Co-op members calling on the grocer to shift to sourcing of non sow-stall pork, along with intensive poultry cages, within five years. The motion however is non-binding and Calgary Co-op has since said it will work with Alberta Pork and other industry players to determine any direction.

All of this activity has raised the public profile and debate around the issue. The RCC announcement in particular, because it represents the positions of eight of the country's largest grocers, also clearly sets the expectations for the production level of the pork sector, which must now grapple with the implications and firm up its own commitments around this new agenda.

Though the sow stall issue is specific to the pork sector, how it is managed and resolved among the various players will also be watched closely by other livestock sectors. It carries implications for a variety of priority welfare issues across livestock species.

Breaking down what it means for producers

The RCC commitment includes some context on how the retailers are viewing the issue. On a positive note for producers, it acknowledges the economic challenge of shifting to new approaches and pledges to work with suppliers to find practical solutions that maintain viable farms. It does not call for a potentially reckless, immediate shift from sow stalls. It also does not have the top-down, dictatorial tone of a solely retailer-directed vision of what the future looks like. Very importantly for livestock industries, it also offers a clear endorsement of the industry-supported, multi-stakeholder Code of Practice development process underway.

"The Retail Council of Canada believes that sows should be housed in an environment where their pregnancy, health and well-being are taken into highest consideration," reads the RCC grocery members' position. The selection of sow housing, it says, should be based on "a combination of sound science, stakeholder expectations and the long term viability of the industry."

Key parts of the stated voluntary commitment include:

  • RCC grocery members support the process to update the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, which is coordinated by the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC)
  • Members will work towards sourcing fresh pork products from sows raised in alternative housing practices as defined in the updated Codes by the end of 2022
  • The members further agree to dialogue with other stakeholders in the pork supply chain, including the Canadian Pork Council, and through its membership and committee participation with NFACC
  • Each company will implement this commitment in accordance with its own specific business requirements and in consultation with their vendor partners

The basic RCC position does not necessarily conflict with general livestock industry direction on this issue. However, because it puts a hard timeframe to change that will represent substantial investment requirements for producers, it's understandable to anticipate a careful, wait-and-see tone to the livestock industry reaction.

In particular, there is some concern that this and similar announcements have come out ahead of the release of the new draft Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, which will be released for public comment on June 1, 2013. However, because several of the grocers are involved in the Code process it's expected the 2022 timeframe approximately lines up with what will ultimately be suggested in the updated draft Code.

Cautious response: Canadian Pork Council

The Canadian Pork Council (CPC), which has supported and been fully engaged in the NFACC-coordinated Code development process, has responded cautiously to the RCC announcement.

In a release, the CPC says it views the commitment made by the RCC on sow housing as an opportunity for further productive dialogue between farmers and retailers. However the release avoids endorsing the specific RCC timeframe. CPC is careful to reinforce the practical and economic challenges that a shift from sow stalls entails, along with the need for this burden to be carried by multiple components of the supply chain rather than producers alone.

"As a farmer, my first priority is the care and welfare of the animals. I am proud that my farm helps the Canadian pork industry provide consumers a healthy and safe food supply," says CPC chair Jean-Guy Vincent. "Any change on farm must be done in a way that protects the welfare of the animals and keeps Canadian farms strong".

The path forward

CPC points out that significant work has been undertaken by the industry in animal care through research, the development of an animal care assessment program and involvement in the NFACC-coordinated review of the Code of Practice for Pigs. At the same time, it understands that stakeholder expectations are changing.

"The RCC announcement recognizes that the conversion of sow housing is a significant investment which will require support from other stakeholder groups," says the CPC release. "Not only will substantial capital investments be needed to physically change barns but also considerable human resource efforts to choose the right system and train stockpeople to a new way of handing animals. The CPC looks forward to meeting with RCC to hear its proposals on how changes to sow housing can be managed and how the value chain and others can share in the investment."

There is more to this story that will play out in the months ahead, particularly as response to the recent developments crosses over with the public comment period for the draft revised Pig Code of Practice.

One thing is assured. If the direction on sow housing from a Canadian retailer and processor perspective wasn't clear before, it certainly is now. The ball is transitioning into the court of the production level of the sector to further flesh out its game plan to manage these expectations and prepare for the future. Watch for more coverage of this issue in future editions of NewStream Farm Animal Care.


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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