by SUSAN MANN
Ontario Pork producers aren’t in favour of a mandatory ban on gestation stalls for the province but market forces may be steering them in that direction.
Quick service restaurant chain Tim Hortons affirmed in its 2012 Sustainability and Responsibility Report, released this week, that it will only source pork from suppliers that don’t use gestation stalls by 2022.
In a press release Wednesday, Tim Hortons says “we affirm our call for the pork industry to eliminate gestation stall practices for sows and by 2022 will source pork from the suppliers who have made the transition to alternative open housing.”
Tim Faveri, Tim Hortons director of sustainability and responsibility, says the company buys pork from both Canadian and American suppliers and says it is a major customer.The Tim Hortons website says it has 4,264 restaurants, including 3,436 in Canada, 804 in the United States and 24 in the Gulf Cooperation Council of arab states.
Faveri says Tim Hortons has worked on building a sustainable supply chain for the past three to five years using a farm to fork approach. “A lot of customers out there are becoming much more interested with respect to where their food comes from.”
In updating its animal welfare policy, Tim Hortons did internal and external benchmarking, along with consulting farmers, industry associations and government organizations. “It was our assessment the current practice of gestation stalls are on their way out.”
By consulting with the industry, “we’re confident in hearing from our suppliers and other stakeholders that 2022 is a sustainable, balanced date for our suppliers to achieve,” he says, noting Tim Hortons said previously it didn’t support the use of the stalls and requested suppliers provide plans to phase them out over time. After talking with suppliers, industry and government representatives last year, the restaurant chain reaffirmed its commitment to have the stalls phased out and “we were comfortable with a 2022 date.”
As for how Tim Hortons plans to ensure it is getting gestation stall-free pork after 2022, Faveri says currently traceability and verification in the value chain is limited. But “that’s going to be very important to develop in the next decade.”
In addition to funding research on verification and traceability, Faveri says Tim Hortons is also funding research at the University of Guelph on how transitions to more sustainable systems can be achieved. Those results will be presented at a restaurant industry summit this fall.
The American pork industry is quite polarized on the gestation stall issue, he says. But if the Canadian National Farm Animal Care Council moves towards some form of open sow housing in its updated Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, due out June 1 for public comment, Faveri says his personal feeling is “Canadian pork is going to be that much more sought after on the open market.”
Pork producer Stewart Skinner, who farms with his father, Larry, near Listowel, says often these changes aren’t being driven by science or consumers but by animal rights activists buying shares in publicly-traded food companies and bringing resolutions and shareholder directives to the floor at annual meetings. “At the end of the day it’s going to impact the most vulnerable people in our society and those are the people that need food as cheaply as possible. But these are the things that are going to make their food cost more money.”
Crystal Mackay, executive director of Farm and Food Care Ontario, says the people targeting Tim Hortons about these issues are likely not Tim Hortons customers. Attitude studies by Farm and Food Care Ontario show that animal welfare is not high on the list of peoples’ concerns about sustainable food.
Skinner says they use loose sow housing on their farrow-to-finish farm with 375 sows and they started out their farm that way. But one of the reasons for using crates is to protect sows from themselves. Sows can be very violent especially when they’re establishing their pecking order. Early pregnancy is critical because the embryos aren’t attached to the uterine wall in the sow until after the fourth week.
“You see extreme reduction in performance if you’re not allowed to use the crate at least for that implantation period,” he says.
Faveri points out “there’s a balance between putting them in a crate that small for the entire gestation cycle or perhaps having them impregnated in a stall and then released into an open system.”
Canadian Pork Council chair Jean-Guy Vincent, a pork producer from Quebec,
says he uses gestation stalls on his farm. “It’s what was the best for our animals when we built our barns.” But if farmers must make changes, the focus should be on what’s the best way to raise the animals and for farmers to make a living.
“The question we have when the big companies want to drive changes is, how will they pay producers for those changes?” he asks. “They cannot just ask producers to spend a lot of money on their farms.”
Skinner says changing to loose sow housing hasn’t been proven to improve the welfare of sows. Twenty-five to 30 years ago, experts were encouraging farmers to change to gestation crates because “that was better for the sow.”
Ontario pork producers voted 69-12 at their annual meeting last month against a mandatory sow stall ban. But Ontario Pork spokesman Keith Robbins says “the board has yet to make a decision on that approach.”
He says Ontario Pork is aware of Tim Hortons' request and the restaurant chain is one of several companies calling for gestation stalls in the pork industry to be phased out.
Ontario Pork has been consulting with Tim Hortons for a number of years and “Tim Hortons was clear that they wanted to move to a position where they felt the industry would be able to accommodate them,” says Robbins. “They wanted to make sure that their position could be doable.”
It isn’t known how many Canadian farmers currently can meet Tim Hortons’ requirements. In Ontario, Skinner says he’d guess 75 per cent of pork farmers use crated systems while 25 per cent have some sort of loose sow housing. The Canadian Pork Council is doing an economic analysis of the costs to switch from gestation stall systems to loose sow housing, says Gary Stordy, public relations manager.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is restaurant chains have different criteria for defining loose sow housing. Robbins says “the biggest thing is, what is the definition of loose sow housing?”
Once the recommended code of practice is finished, restaurant chains will be able to refer to it. The draft code is scheduled to be released for public comment June 1 and may be finalized later this year.
Skinner agrees that lack of detail from the companies makes it difficult for farmers. “We don’t know whether it’s completely loose housing or whether it will be similar to the European Union system” where sows can be crated for four weeks after breeding.
Faveri says Tim Hortons is waiting to see what’s in the updated code of the practice and is very supportive of that process.
Without knowing the details from Tim Hortons, Skinner says it’s hard to know how much it’s ultimately going to cost farmers to rework their operations to meet the new demand. He says one estimate has pegged the transition cost at $125 per sow but farmers generally say that’s way too low and a more realistic cost is $500 to $600 per sow.
If a farmer is starting from scratch, it’s cheaper to build a barn with loose sow housing compared to one with gestation stalls but sow productivity is lower in the loose systems because sows lose pregnancies more often due to fighting compared to if they were in crated systems, Skinner notes, adding there can be health benefits if a farmer manages a loose housing system correctly.
The transition costs to the industry will be substantial but Skinner says it's unlikely farmers will get any premiums for doing the switch because so many companies want to make that claim and it won’t be a niche market.
Robbins says some provinces, such as Manitoba, and several states in the United States have decided to phase out gestation stalls. Manitoba will phase them out by 2025. Ontario is in the process “of the board having to decide what the position will be.”
Increased production of eggs from loose housing is also a target for Tim Hortons. It is on track to source 10 per cent of its egg products form “more humane, alternative hen housing systems by the end of 2013.” That’s “significantly more than 10 million eggs,” Tim Hortons’ release says. BF (with files from Better Farming staff)