Amove by fast-food giant McDonald’s to have its U.S. pork suppliers phase out sow gestation stalls has drawn praise from animal rights groups, but questions remain about the impact it will have on Canadian producers.
“This is huge. That a major corporation has made this move is really very significant,” said Winnipeg Humane Society CEO Bill McDonald.
Ten years ago, the society launched a “Quit Stalling” campaign aimed at outlawing the practice in Manitoba. They will meet with Manitoba’s NDP caucus in the coming weeks to again make the case for outlawing sow stalls.
“It’s been a long uphill battle,” he said.
The Humane Society of the United States has lobbied both government and corporate entities in its fight to ban the use of sow stalls. To date, seven states have outlawed the practice, said McDonald.
McDonald’s Canada spokesman Louis Payette said the move will include pork products sold in Canadian establishments, as those items are sourced from U.S. suppliers.
Many Canadian pork processors have already made commitments to have suppliers phase out the use of stalls, including Maple Leaf and Smithfield.
Manitoba Pork Council, which last year pledged to eliminate such stalls in the province’s hog barns in the next 15 years, isn’t surprised McDonald’s is making the move.
“It’s something the consumer is asking for, people look at these things now and I think companies know that,” said the council’s animal-care specialist, Mark Fynn.
He said the council is encouraging producers to move to group housing, and is assisting with research on barn conversion. Because of a province-wide ban on new hog barn construction, old barns must be retrofitted to accommodate any change in sow housing systems.
Laurie Connor, head of animal science at the University of Manitoba, said she is pleased to see McDonald’s intends to pursue a gradual and reasoned approach.
“I find it encouraging that they didn’t come out and take a stand saying it’s banned,” she said. “They are saying down the road we’re not going to accept it, so for me it’s a positive that they recognized this isn’t something that happens overnight.”
Connor has been studying the issue of sow housing for decades, and believes group housing offers health and welfare benefits to swine. However, the researcher said animal welfare is also balanced with the producers’ ability to remain profitable and reasonable timelines.
Connor and Fynn are both continuing to study the issue of barn conversion.
Although many producers are actively considering making the change, some holdouts exist.
“I have spoken to some primary producers, or heard them say, no, the whole thing is ridiculous, or I don’t want to change my system, it works great … or I’m confident with the care I’m providing my animals,” said Connor. “I’m not disputing that, but what I am saying is that the times are changing and as an industry we’ve recognized that yes, we have to make a change.”
McDonald’s has given its suppliers four months to present plans to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls in their hog barns.
“McDonald’s believes gestation stalls are not a sustainable production system for the future,” said Dan Gorsky, the senior vice-president of North American supply chain management for the Illinois-based company. “There are alternatives that we think are better for the welfare of sows.”
Several of the company’s U.S. suppliers are already in the process of adopting “commercially viable alternatives” for penning of gestating sows, he added, naming Cargill and Smithfield Foods as examples of companies making “significant progress in this area.”