Updated pig code released: improvements and shortfalls

The updated Code of Practice for the Care & Handling of Pigs has been officially released. Highlights of the revised code include: industry commitment to adopt loose housing for sows and gilts; pain control requirement; and enhanced environmental enrichment. We briefly discuss these points in relation to their impact on animal welfare. Industry commitment to adopt loose housing for sows and gilts: The Updated code requires that sows be housed in groups – with separate space for eating, sleeping, and eliminating – in all facilities built or rebuilt after July 1, 2014.   This requirement may positively and rapidly impact the welfare of hundreds of thousands of animals. For example, in Manitoba – one of the three largest pig producing provinces – there are about 318,000 sows kept for reproduction, most of them inside cruel gestation crates. In this province, the majority of barns were built between the late 1990s and 2004. Given that a pig barn’s life-span is about 15 to 20 years, most of the province’s pig producers now need to replace barns, equipment or both, and should thus fall under the Code of practice’s requirement. Further, while the code still allows the use of individual pens or stalls by July 1, 2024, since stalls have a life of 15 to 20 years, many additional facilities should have transitioned away, or be close to transitioning away, from crates by that date (although some could be in used up until 2033 if they were built or rebuilt last year!). Eventually, this new requirement should effectively lead to the full adoption of group housing systems by the pig industry – a commitment clearly indicated in the revised code. However, given the suffering endured by sows in gestation crates, and the fact that the public has been demanding the phase-out of sow stalls for many years, the phase-out period allowed by the new code seems unreasonably distant. We can only hope that the commitment of Maple Leaf to phase out gestation crates by 2017, as well as the one from all eight of Canada’s leading retailers to phase them out by 2022 and the bans happening in other countries, will help accelerate the transition to less cruel housing systems for sows. Pain control requirement: The updated Code requires the use of painkillers for castration and tail docking for pigs over 10 and 7 days, respectively, effective immediately, and for all animals regardless of age after July 1, 2016. This new requirement should help alleviate at least some of the suffering the animals endure when mutilated, and is an important step towards improving animal welfare. However, it does not go far enough, continuing to allow cruel and unnecessary practices that have been banned or are phased-out in other countries, and are caused by the confinement and unnatural environment of the factory farm system. In addition, the Code still allows the painful procedures of ear notching for piglets under 14 days of age, tusk trimming for boars, and teeth clipping for piglets when “deemed necessary”, and does not require pain killers for any of these procedures. Enhanced environmental enrichment: The revised code implicitly acknowledges that pigs are intelligent, curious animals who need intellectual stimulation, and requires that the animals “be provided with multiple forms of enrichment that aim to improve [their] welfare (…) through the enhancement of their physical and social environments.” While this is yet another important addition to the code, the provision of suspended toys and other enrichment materials pales in comparison to the complexity of the material and resources pigs would have access to – and need to access – to fully express their natural behavior if they were able to spend time outdoors.  In short, this requirement fails to acknowledge that the needs of pigs – and of any other farmed animals – cannot be properly met in the confinement of a factory farm. Concluding remarks: While the revised pig code is a definite improvement over the past code, it continues to have strong shortfalls, and to fail to address many important animal welfare issues.  In addition, while the code is meant to set the standards for the industry, it is also only voluntary, and the standards are not enforced. It is thus crucial that the Canadian public continue to make their voices heard and demand an end to the cruel and unnecessary confinement of animals inside factory farms. Furthermore, it is important that everyone concerned with this issue vote with their pocketbook by buying only certified humanely raised pork products or refusing to buy pork products altogether, at least until the industry reforms its cruel ways.