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Maple Leaf to upgrade stunning process, ‘accelerate’ on sow housing

Meat processor's strategy praised as 'game-changing' for sector

Pledging to upgrade its hog and poultry stunning processes, speed up its timeline on sow housing and step up its game on facility audits, livestock pain management and reduced antibiotic use, Maple Leaf Foods said Friday it’s now set to carve an animal care agenda into formal company policy.

The major Canadian meat processor on Friday released what it billed as a formal “Animal Care Commitment,” to which CEO Michael McCain said the company will apply “the necessary organizational focus and resources, with a steadfast commitment to advancing the humane and science-based treatment of animals.”

Toronto-based Maple Leaf said it would “enhance animal wellness practices in a manner consistent with the Five Freedoms, the most widely accepted global standard for responsible animal care.”

With that in mind, the company said it will develop a three-year Animal Care Strategy “identifying goals and initiatives that advance the Five Freedoms across our supply chain, including husbandry, environmental enrichment (e.g. space, lighting, air quality), pain mitigation, euthanasia, transportation and governance.”

In a separate release Friday, Nathan Runkle, president of the Canadian arm of Los Angeles-based animal welfare group Mercy for Animals, hailed Maple Leaf’s announcement as “a historic and game-changing policy that promises to reduce the suffering of millions of animals.”

“Scientifically advanced and humane euthanasia,” including controlled atmosphere stunning, is to be set up in all Maple Leaf fresh poultry plants, the company added.

Controlled atmosphere stunning is favoured by some animal welfare advocates as a more humane alternative than electrical stunning to render birds unconscious and unable to feel pain at slaughter. The method involves exposing birds to concentrated gases such as carbon dioxide.

Mercy for Animals hailed the controlled-atmosphere poultry stunning plan as the “most notable” of the pledges Maple Leaf made Friday.

Moving to controlled-atmosphere stunning, the group said, “will spare millions of birds from the horrific suffering caused by shackling, shocking, and slitting the throats of conscious animals.”

For the company’s major pork slaughter and processing plant at Brandon, Man., Maple Leaf pledged Friday it will install carbon dioxide (CO2) stunning equipment and retrofit the plant’s barn area to “enhance animal care and humane euthanasia.”

All sows under Maple Leaf’s management are to be transferred to loose housing, Maple Leaf said Friday, budgeting for at least 37,000 sows in group housing by 2017, and “accelerating” the company’s previous timeline to move the remaining sows under company management away from gestation-crate housing.

Maple Leaf’s original timeline, set up in 2007, had called for a phase-out gestation-crate housing for sows at company-owned hog production sites within 10 years.

Maple Leaf, however, took over financially troubled Niverville, Man.-based hog producer Puratone in 2012, substantially boosting company-owned hogs as a percentage of its total supply.

Maple Leaf said Friday its pork and poultry operations will also now undergo an “annual independent audit by company-approved auditors, and expediently correct any deficiencies.”

The company said it would also “advocate strongly for enhancements to on-farm poultry audits, including increased transparency and comprehensive annual independent audits.”

The company said it will also “further enhance current approaches to pain management and potential alternatives to procedures such as surgical castration and tail docking.”

Maple Leaf also pledged to “reduce or eliminate antibiotic use across our supply chain, while recognizing the importance of providing the necessary medication to sick or injured animals.”

“Remote video auditing” is also to be set up in Maple Leaf’s production and processing plants, starting with three this year, the company said. “Detailed” reports are to help advance training and operating practices and to help Maple Leaf “respond swiftly to any animal welfare incident.”

The company said it will also now advocate for federal animal transportation regulations to be modernized, and for “other regulatory reforms that raise standards,” such as incorporating industry codes of practice into provincial legislation.

The “pillars” of the company’s Animal Care program will serve to advance the Five Freedoms, Maple Leaf said.

Those four pillars, the company said, include culture (communications, education, training, policies and operating procedures, positive reinforcement and consequences for violations); accountability (reporting of performance and “frequent, rigorous internal and independent audits”); advancement (best practices and technologies, supporting research, advocating for improvements); and communications (with the public and stakeholders).

The Five Freedoms, as first listed by Britain’s Farm Animal Welfare Council in 1979, are freedom from hunger or thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury or disease; freedom to express normal behaviours; and freedom from fear and distress.

While there’s “still work to be done,” Mercy for Animals’ Runkle said Friday, Maple Leaf’s new policy “represents one of the most sweeping animal welfare policies ever adopted by a meat producer.

“As the largest meat company in Canada, Maple Leaf Foods is setting the bar for producers in Canada and abroad — and making it clearer than ever that the days are numbered for the factory farming industry’s cruelest practices.” — AGCanada.com Network

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