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Mixed messages on gestation stalls

The head of Manitoba Pork Council says his group hasn’t pledged to move away from sow stalls after all

Manitoba hog producers should dig in their heels and say no to phasing out gestation stalls.

That was the message Rick Berman brought to the Manitoba Pork Council’s annual general meeting last week, in which he urged producers to go on the offensive against “animal rights lunatics.”

“Get your head around the fact you’re in an endless war with animal rights activists,” said Berman.

“Their goal is the abolition of animal agriculture. They want people to eat salads instead of eating steaks.”

The Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist, lawyer and PR expert has gained notoriety for aggressively defending the interests of a host of industry groups, including the U.S. food and beverage sector, big tobacco, and the alcohol industry (the latter involved opposing Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Now he is promoting gestation stalls on behalf of the American pork industry.

Moving away from gestation stalls won’t satisfy animal rights proponents, said Berman, arguing their real goal is to make livestock production financially inviable for producers and meat prohibitively expensive for consumers.

A host of companies — including McDonald’s, Burger King, Tim Hortons, Cargill, Costco, Sysco, Maple Leaf Foods, Olymel and Wendy’s — has announced plans to either phase out gestation stalls or stop buying pork from processors who use them.

But the issue isn’t settled yet, said the American lobbyist.

“That is the image the activists want to make, because then it convinces the people who haven’t got on board that train to think, ‘Oh well, the train has left the station.’ So it’s all about convincing everyone that the fight is over,” said Berman, adding the promises made by processors and retailers are “wishy-washy” and full of loopholes.

The public has been duped by a small group of activists into thinking gestation stalls are cruel, he said, suggesting pork producers adopt a more consumer-friendly term such as “individual maternity pens.”

Many in attendance applauded Berman’s message, but there was skepticism as well.

“Personally, I don’t agree that we shouldn’t be looking to change away from stalls,” said Laurie Conner, a University of Manitoba scientist who researches open-housing methods.

“There are, and will continue to be, increasing expectations from the consumer that animals are raised in a way that they see as humane.”

Encouraging producers to reassert control of practices in their industry is a positive message, she said. But Conner balked at the idea of waging a costly PR battle when the tide of public opinion on the issue is already turning.

“I think (Berman) would not be unhappy if $1 a pig was sent his way to help that cause,” said Conner, referring to a dollar-per-pig levy used by producers in Minnesota to fight demands for group-housing systems.

The Manitoba Pork Council has previously indicated the organization is committed to a voluntary phase-out of gestation stalls by 2025, but chairman Karl Kynoch said that’s not the case.

“Our board has never taken a position of phasing out stalls,” said Kynoch. “Our position is we encourage producers to look at alternative forms of housing by 2025. We’re not saying switch, we’re saying: Do the research, look into it, if there are better alternatives and it works for somebody, switch to it.”

Producers are concerned about animal welfare, said Kynoch, but is also worried their industry is being unfairly targeted by activist groups.

Last December, the group Mercy for Animals released undercover footage from a Manitoba hog barn sparking backlash from across the country.

“What we’ve got to do is push back on people who are trying to enforce regulations on us, or ways to raise our animals,” said Kynoch. “We have to push back on them and say, ‘No, you don’t understand animal agriculture. You don’t understand animal welfare. We do.’”

Bill McDonald, CEO of the Winnipeg Humane Society was invited to the council’s meeting, but chose not to attend after learning Rick Berman was on the agenda.

“I’m surprised the pork council would make the decision to poke animal welfare organizations in the eye like this,” he said, adding there had been common ground between the two organizations in recent years with the council’s previously espoused commitment to a voluntary phase-out of stalls by 2025.

“Why, when they have published documents stating they are in favour of phasing out stalls by 2025, would they take this step backwards?” he asked.

More than 10 years ago, the society launched a “Quit Stalling” campaign aimed at outlawing the practice in Manitoba. It has since worked with both government and industry to end the use of gestation stalls.

The stalls were first introduced to the pork industry to help combat aggressive tendencies among sows decades ago, but Conner said there is new information about them today.

Ongoing research has found sows suffer muscle and bone ailments as a result of stalls, leading to lameness, she said.

Research has also identified methods of husbandry that make group housing sows feasible.

“There are ways to manage aggressiveness with partitions, particular spacing and individual feeding,” Conner said.

And although it may not happen in the time frame people want, she believes the efforts of processors and retailers to phase out stalls are genuine.

“Change is a part of life, but it isn’t always easy,” she said.

About the author

Reporter

Shannon VanRaes is a journalist and photojournalist at the Manitoba Co-operator. She also writes a weekly urban affairs column for Metro Winnipeg, and has previously reported for the Winnipeg Sun, Outwords Magazine and the Portage Daily Graphic.

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