A crackdown on shipping unfit animals is paying off, says the chairman of the Western Hog Exchange.
“I don’t have the statistics to back it up, but the general consensus is that we have seen a significant improvement in the animals coming to the plants,” Brent Moen said in an interview.
The Red Deer hog plant adopted a zero-tolerance stance on shipping “problem animals” after seeing an undercover Mercy for Animals video last fall. The video, shot at the facility and aired on CTV, contained disturbing footage of pigs that were limping or unable to walk being dragged off trucks and kicked and prodded by employees.
That prompted the exchange to tell transporters to refuse to haul unfit livestock. And if an unfit hog shows up at the unloading bay, calls are made.
“If a transporter continually brings in problem animals, we’re going to report back to the transporter and to the company that owns the pigs,” Moen told attendees at the recent Canadian Livestock Transport conference.
“If you’re going to violate the potential of our entire industry because you don’t want to follow the rules, I will tell a producer that you need to find somebody else to buy your output. We can’t have a small per cent of the industry that isn’t prepared to conform putting the rest of our industry in jeopardy.”
The exchange also hired Jennifer Woods, an auditor and animal care specialist from Blackie.
She said she doesn’t see a lot of unfit animals at the livestock-processing plants she audits.
“But ideally I shouldn’t see any of it,” said Woods. “It’s not every load but when it does happen, it’s not good.”
Woods said she gives significant weight to the shipping of unfit animals when auditing transport.
“There’s a low occurrence but when it does happen, it’s rated high for animal welfare and public relations,” she said. “We’re a lot better, but ideally no unfit animals would get shipped in a perfect world.”
The exchange and Alberta Pork have also increased training for workers at the plant since the video, and mounted an educational campaign for both producers and transporters.
“You will get the odd downer in transportation and that happens, but even from that standpoint, I would say that producers are paying attention to less crowding on the trucks and trying to do whatever they can to make the market animals more comfortable,” said Moen, owner of Verus Swine Management Services in Calgary.
“From the culled sow side, there were animals coming in with prolapses or poor legs. Unstable, I will call them. But again, producers are now paying more attention.”
This year’s lower prices may also have made a difference — a culled sow that fetched $350 last year is now only worth $100.
“I don’t want to paint the industry in a bad light, but economics is a reality,” said Moen. “But again, it’s no excuse for shipping a compromised animal.”
But the educational outreach has heightened awareness that euthanizing unfit animals on the farm is the right thing to do for animal welfare and to maintain public confidence of the industry.
“You should really ask yourself if the animal is in good structural shape and has the confirmation to make the journey to slaughter — if it isn’t, put it down,” said Moen. “Part of it is awareness and asking yourself questions to make a decision whether or not the animal is unfit to ship.”
Still work to do
World Organization of Animal Health guidelines state animals should not be shipped when they are sick, injured, disabled or fatigued, and are unable to stand or bear weight on their legs. They also can’t be shipped if they are blind in both eyes, have unhealed wounds, or are about to give birth.
“For me, our biggest vulnerability and welfare issue is the condition of the animal (when it is shipped),” Woods said in her presentation to the livestock transport conference.
Plants can also do their part to stop the shipping of unfit animals. In Canada, plants aren’t allowed to sled, which means that they can’t remove non-ambulatory animals from transport and must euthanize them. Since the animal can’t get off the trailer, it has no value.
Some plants penalize and fine people for shipping unfit animals.
“As soon as that happens, people quit sending them,” said Woods.
But there’s still work to do, said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s veterinary lead on livestock transportation.
“I’ve been on this file for a year and a half and have received many reports from the Canadian public,” said Michelle Groleau.
“If one per cent of animal loads across Canada are non-compliant, that might not seem like a lot. But if you’re looking at 700 million animals transported every year, that translates to seven million animals, which is not acceptable. We can improve and we have to improve.”