California resolution rings alarm for livestock farmers in Canada

Largely unnoticed during the November 4 U. S. presidential election was the passage of a sweeping California ballot initiative which could have far-reaching effects for livestock production in North America.

Proposition 2 will effectively ban gestation stalls, battery cages and veal crates in California by 2015.

The initiative, which voters passed by a margin of 63.2 per cent to 36.8 per cent, requires that pregnant sows, egg-laying hens and calves raised for veal be allowed to fully extend their limbs or wings, lie down, stand up and turn around for most of the day.

While it does not actually ban stalls, cages and crates, the wording effectively means that.

The Humane Society of the United States and Farm Sanctuary, two of the largest animal rights groups in the nation, co-sponsored the resolution. The California Veterinary Medical Association also supported it.

Although Proposition 2 affects only one state, it is creating consternation among farm groups nationally. California is the largest agricultural state in the U. S. and the impending ban is expected to have influence elsewhere.

Bellwether state

“California is often a bellwether, so it’s likely this ban will be pushed in other states,” said Bryan Black, National Pork Producers Council president, in a statement. “We certainly don’t expect the Humane Society to stop with California.”

It’s only a matter of time before similar measures come to Canada, too, said Karl Kynoch, Manitoba Pork Council chairman.

“Eventually, whatever happens in the U. S. will happen here,” Kynoch said.

The Winnipeg Humane Society, which has long lobbied against gestation stalls, seized on Proposition 2 as proof that livestock confinement systems are on the way out. “This is a giant leap forward in the animal welfare movement for sure,” said Bill McDonald, WHS executive director.

The WHS hopes to meet with Premier Gary Doer to discuss farm confinement practices in Manitoba, McDonald said.

The Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals demanded federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz include farm animal welfare in the national Growing Forward agriculture policy framework.

“Canada has no laws to govern the treatment of animals on farms, only voluntary codes of practice which condone confinement where animals cannot stretch a wing or turn around,” CCFA said in a statement.

Penny Kelly, Manitoba Egg Producers general manager, said her industry takes Proposition 2 seriously because California is one of the largest egg-producing states in the U. S.

Local pressures

Kelly acknowledged Canada does not have public referenda the way the U. S. does. Animal welfare measures are more likely to succeed through pressure on local municipalities, she said.

The Union of British Columbia Municipalities convention in Penticton this fall received a resolution from the city of Pitt Meadows calling on UBCM to urge the province “to enact measures to ban battery cages egg productions and to urge alternate egg production practices that provide humane conditions for laying hens.”

The resolut ion was not debated because of time constraints. It was referred to the UBCM executive, which may consider it at a Dec. 5 meeting.

Closer to home, Steinbach city council last month received a letter from the U. S.-based National Humane Society asking it to condemn conditions for chickens on egg farms and urge producers to adopt free-range systems. Councillors said it was a decision best left to the marketplace. Steinbach is in the R. M. of Hanover, a hub of intensive livestock production.

Kelly said MEP is not defensive about battery cages because they provide advantages, such as lower salmonella bacteria rates and less cannibalism among birds.

Alternatives provided

She said her industry is glad to provide consumers with alternative production systems if they want them. At present, most commercial eggs in Manitoba are from cage-housed hens. Eggs from free-run and free-range operations make up less than five per cent of the province’s egg output.

But recent developments indicate the animal rights lobby is affecting farm animal husbandry in North America.

Fast-food restaurants and grocery chains are starting to require humane production standards for animals from their suppliers. Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the U. S., announced in early 2007 it was phasing out its use of gestation stalls over 10 years. Days later, Maple Leaf Foods said it would do the same.

Kynoch said Manitoba hog farmers look to the University of Manitoba and other centres for research on converting swine confinement systems to open housing.

He said producers are willing to switch as long as consumers recognize they’ll have to pay more for pork as a result. [email protected]

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