Revised welfare codes of practice address sensitive issues

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How do you get a group of hog producers, industry representatives, researchers and people from humane societies to agree on standards for pig welfare? As you might expect, the process involves reviewing a lot of scientific information, considerable deliberation and compromise between groups with different views.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the revision of the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pigs, which should have been released in July this year, is taking far more time than anticipated.

At the recent Saskatchewan Pork Symposium, Dr. Harold Gonyou, chair of the Pig Code Scientists Committee, and Florian Possberg, chair of the Pig Code Development Committee, updated delegates on the changes that are likely and the implications for producers.

The existing codes, published in 1993, are now long overdue for a major revision, not least because The National Farmed Animal Care Council is mandated to update them every 10 years.

“The current codes are voluntary and are intended to provide education and information,” Gonyou said. “However, they have gradually become adopted as the basis for legal action and their requirements have been incorporated into the Animal Care Assessment (ACA) component of the CQA program.”

Gonyou said the expectations of the new codes will be higher than the existing ones. “They will include definitions of basic requirements that will use the word ‘must,’ in addition to recommendations for a higher level of care, which use the word ‘should.’”

Gonyou expects that the codes will continue to be used as part of the CQA program and that Canadian packers will require their suppliers to be ACA certified. He said consumer interest in animal welfare has increased dramatically since the previous codes were published and that there is now a need to provide reassurance to consumers that pigs are raised to acceptable standards. “Essentially, compliance with the codes and ACA certification will be a licence to farm,” he said.

Priority areas

The scientific committee identified six priority areas for review — controlling pain during procedures such as castration, tail docking, teeth clipping and detusking; methods of euthanasia, space allowances, sow housing, social management of sows and space allowances for sows.

“We reviewed each of these with reference to the three overlapping components of animal welfare,” Gonyou said. “First, we considered biological function, in other words, how a particular practice affects such things as growth rate or fertility. We also considered the pig’s affective state, which is based on the premise that animals should be housed and handled so as to minimize suffering and to be comfortable. Finally, we considered natural living, which is the degree to which the pig’s environment accommodates its natural behaviour.”

The committee’s report made conclusions, but did not make recommendations. Final decisions on recommendations will be made by the code committee.

Possberg outlined the likely changes in the new codes, in particular the framework for the industry to move towards group sow housing for the majority of gestation.

“We are doing this because the public is demanding it; they can’t accept that sows spend their whole life in a crate,” he said. “We have to come up with a compromise and, although not everyone will be happy, what we are suggesting is a reasonable consensus.”

Possberg explained that the new codes will prescribe that no new stall housing be built after July 1, 2014 and that existing barns must be converted by July 1, 2024.

“There was a lot of pressure to make the change by 2017, but doing it by 2024 is a big enough challenge,” he added. Sows may be kept in stalls for the first 28 days of gestation, with an additional seven-day window after that to facilitate the management of grouping sows.

Larger stalls

In answer to a question, Dr. Gonyou commented that the sow stalls currently used are too small for many of today’s larger sows and are only suitable for gilts and second-parity sows. “A new requirement will be included in the codes, which relates the size of the stall to the size of the sow,” he said. “If older sows are going to be kept in stalls in early gestation, these stalls will have to be larger.”

With increasing public concern about procedures such as castration, there is pressure to eliminate it altogether as the EU is proposing, or make provision for the use of anesthetics and analgesics to relieve pain during and after the procedure. The new codes will require this, but only for pigs over 14 days of age, which will have little impact on the industry. However, from July 1, 2019, castration of pigs at any age must be done with the use of an analgesic to control post-procedure pain.

There is evidence that when this is done, pig performance is better, so it is cost effective,” Possberg said.

Similarly, tail docking, when carried out on pigs over seven days of age, will require pain control to be used.

Possberg noted that the new codes were due to be released in July, but CPC asked for a delay due to current market conditions. “The committee needs more time to analyze the implications for producers,” he said.

There is no doubt that the proposals on sow housing will have the most financial impact on producers and will not be popular when the industry has been in a long-term squeeze for the last five years. However, a move by the industry itself to set the agenda and take action on the issue, rather than be forced to change by animal welfare groups or retailers, will be better for producers in the long term.

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