Have your say on how pigs are treated in Canada
So, the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC) is reviewing a new draft of their codes of practice for raising & handling pigs, and are inviting the public to give input on it.
From now until August 3, you can take their survey reviewing the draft of the updated code, and tell them what you think.
Currently, the standards include “requirements” and “recommendations”. Codes of practice are not legislature and unfortunately as such are not mandatory for people who keep animals, however, it’s still important to give feedback as many farms use the codes (and of course, it’s always important to give feedback on how animals are treated at the hands of humans, especially when they’re being used for profit or are viewed as commodites, as pigs are).
The survey can be found on this page (click the red box). Before completing it, there are a couple of things to know.
First off, it’s useful to review some of the information listed below the red box – specifically, the link to the scientific committee report (concerning common welfare issues for pigs) and the “priority welfare” list below the links. These will help you understand what’s at stake and what issues are faced by these animals, if you aren’t already familiar with them. There are a lot, and they aren’t always obvious, so it’s worth being informed before filling out the survey, regardless of where you stand on whether or not eating animals is acceptable.
Secondly, this survey is freaking looooonnng. I spent a good two hours on the first two pages alone (though I had a lot of comments to make). I think the length will probably deter a lot of people (whether that’s intentional or not, who knows), but don’t let it – just give yourself some time to fill it out. Alternatively, you can open the draft version of the updated code and read it, make notes in a text document, and later paste them into the survey comments to avoid the page timing out.
“Ok, so I’m looking at it. What the heck does this even mean?! I don’t know what “grower-finisher” or “the pit” are…and sows are aggressive? Help?!”
Another thing that isn’t obvious is what the language refers to in the code and survey. Again, if you aren’t familiar, the terminology can be challenging and vague. I’ve put together some definitions that will help you understand what each term is referring to – they are at the end of this post.
One more thing that’s really important is to understand what pigs are like as animals. Most of us don’t have the opportunity to interact with pigs in a comfortable setting or to learn about them except as pieces of meat on our plates. There’s a lot that could be said here, but for the sake of keeping this post from becoming a novel, I’ll summarize it by saying that pigs are very much like dogs. They’re social animals who live in family groups, care for each others’ young, and often stay together even as the piglets become adults. They are also extremely intelligent, problem-solving animals, so mental stimulation is important for them. Important natural behaviours include wallowing (to keep cool on hot days), nest building, and rooting in the soil. As well, a young or physically fit pig can run a 7-minute mile! These are things to keep in mind when reviewing the codes of practice and giving feedback – it helps us understand whether the pigs’ needs are being met under the codes.
This video depicts a family of rescued pigs receiving proper care and given the opportunity to perform their natural behaviours. Note how relaxed these animals are; we don’t see any aggression or anxiety, despite the code’s claim that sows are aggressive. This is undoubtedly an indication that the pigs in the video are being cared for properly.
After completing the survey myself, my advice would be:
- Read what’s there. Is it too vague? Are terms like “excessive”, “undue”, or “necessary” left undefined? If so, question them. Leaving these things open to interpretation is akin to having no regulations at all. Also, don’t forget to let them know whether you think these recommendations and requirements are enough. Do you agree with what’s allowed when it comes to housing, mutilations/”elective husbandry”, euthanasia, etc? If you don’t, tell them. You can even point to other countries that have phased out confinement systems as examples of positive progress and role models which Canada should be striving to follow, and make your own suggestions on how to improve things.
- Observe what’s being omitted. What’s being left out of the picture? Be critical and be specific. Examples could be a lack of definition (again), like what is “normal” and what is “natural”, but there can also be important details missing, such as the minimum size of a stall or pen, the minimum space allotted to each animal, whether any bedding is provided, what kind of floor they are housed on, how injuries/diseases or stereotypies will be monitored and treated and by whom, what kind of ailment warrants euthanasia, how often living areas will be cleaned and how, etc.
- Observe if and how issues are acknowledged and addressed. For instance, an issue like nesting for pregnant sows may be mentioned as an important natural behaviour in the introductory text, but not addressed in the requirements or recommendations. (FYI, nesting instinct is strongly driven by hormones, so although it seems trivial it’s important for the well-being of sows. Let’s not underestimate any of these issues!)
- Be aware of what is Required vs. Recommended. Many of these are no-brainers and it’s kind of unbelievable that they aren’t all required already, as so many should be mandatory. Some examples of Recommendations (not Requirements):
- That farms have an established working relationship with a veterinarian
- That air quality and ammonia levels be monitored and controlled
- That employees receive training on proper handling of animals
- Ensuring that birthing areas are clean prior to sows giving birth
- Treating diseases in piglets is listed as a recommendation, not a requirement; piglets can be euthanized for ailments as simple as infected bite wounds, diarrhea, or respiratory infections, or if they are losing weight
- Maintaining sanitary conditions in pigs’ living quarters is a recommendation, not a requirement, and the only requirement for sanitation in the barn(s) is that they be cleaned and disinfected annually. Within that time, thousands of animals will have lived in the same space
- Providing anaesthetic during castration is not required for piglets younger than 2 weeks of age
- Pain management is not required for tooth clipping/pulling or ear notching
- Vague statements like “the need for tooth clipping should be evaluated” are listed as requirements, but things like “avoid shattering the teeth, avoid cutting to short” etc. are only recommendations
- Boars’ tusks can be cut off using a wire saw. Farm labourers are permitted to perform this procedure as well as others like castration without having any veterinary training
- Many, many more of the Recommendations should absolutely be mandatory, not optional
- Make note along the way of things you think are missing from the code, and voice your concerns about them. Some things that came to mind for me were:
- Who monitors things like aggression, tail biting, disease, and minimum space allowance for growing animals? How are these things monitored? How are they addressed?
- On-farm staff can perform surgeries on animals as long as they’ve been briefed by a veterinarian on the procedure (ie. workers not trained in veterinary medicine are allowed to perform surgeries themselves). I’m sure I don’t need to explain the problems this raises.
- The Requirements cite certain changes that will come into effect in the year 2024; from what I could see, especially when it comes to housing, there is little if any change being made to the current systems. The animals need us to do more than just give them an extra inch in a crate. (Thankfully, some progress, though very minimal, is being made on pain management that will come into effect in 2019).
- How are the Requirements listed in the code enforced? Who enforces them? What sanctions are in place, if any, for people who do not adhere to these (sadly, bare bare bare minimum) standards?
- Methods of euthanasia are crude and in some cases easy to perform improperly; acceptable reasons for euthanasia allow injury and illness to go untreated
- Codes of practice do not apply once animals leave the farm, so transportation, loading and handling, auction, and slaughtering pigs are gray areas
You will find all of these examples and more in the draft code of practice. Appendices at the end outline details of space allotments, euthanasia methods, handling procedures, and more.
As an example of how something that seems small can have a big impact, take the effects of housing methods on pig welfare. Most pigs are kept on concrete, including sows who are put in gestation and farrowing crates. As with any welfare issue, we need to take into account the emotional and psychological effects, as well as the physical ones. Some things that come to mind for me are:
- Concrete floors + lack of exercise = chronic joint problems, hoof problems, and muscle atrophy. When sows are freed from the stalls and either moved to another stall or pen, or sent to slaughter, they often have trouble walking. When lame or sick animals are slow when being moved, there’s a greater risk of abuse by electric prodding and other means of herding the animals. Sows with bad arthritis or leg problems may get on a transport truck able to walk, but by the time they arrive at slaughter or auction, be unable to stand. “Downed” animals like these can either be dragged off a truck or left to die once reaching their destination.
- Frustration due to lack of exercise, socialization, and stimulation. Generally sows can’t walk, run, turn around or interact with other pigs in these crates. There is no bedding or other stimulation provided during the weeks or months-long time period that they live in them. Built-up frustration and pent-up energy can cause aggression and self-injurious behaviours.
- Lack of socialization due to solitary confinement can lead to aggression later on when sows are put into a group setting, such as when put on a truck bound for auction or slaughter.
As you can see, the effects our treatment can have is not always evident, but they can have serious short and long-term impacts.
This is what a happy, well-cared for pig looks like!
Here’s a glossary to help understand what the heck they’re talking about (there is also an extensive glossary in the draft):
Productivity/Production/Performance: How quickly a pig grows or gains weight, or how many pregnancies a sow conceives and carries to term.
Production Phase: The age, point in life cycle, or stage of growth (for all pigs), or the state of being pregnant/lactating or not (for sows).
Stereotypy/Stereotypic Behaviour/Vice: An abnormal, often repetitive behaviour which is generally done to release frustration and pent-up energy. For pigs, this can take the form of tail biting, bar biting, bar rubbing, excessive drinking, aggression, rooting the floor, etc. Stereotypies are a strong indication that the animal’s needs are not being met.
Gestation Crate: A stall or crate in which sows are commonly kept for the duration of their pregnancies (almost 4 months). Typically they can stand up and lie down in these stalls but nothing else. Dimensions of gestation crates are given in the survey. Google has plenty of images if you’re curious about what life is like in a gestation crate.
Farrowing Crate: A stall or crate in which sows are commonly kept for the purpose of giving birth and nursing their piglets. The stalls typically only allow the sow to stand up and lie down; dimensions are given in the survey. Again, google has lots of photos.
Gilt: A young female pig who has not yet had a litter.
First-parity Sow: A sow who is pregnant for the first time in her life.
Parturition/Farrowing: The act of giving birth. (Isn’t this language gloriously de-animalizing? ugh.)
Boar: An intact male pig used for breeding.
Grower/Finisher: Refers to both the facility and the pigs living in it; “grower-finisher” animals are weaned piglets who are being housed in a growing-finishing facility to fatten them for slaughter (which generally occurs around 6 months of age).
Tooth Clipping: Pulling or breaking of piglets’ baby teeth, generally done to prevent injury to each other and with no anaesthetic.
Tail Docking: Cutting off most of the tail, typically without anaesthetic, to discourage a stereotypic (abnormal) behaviour called tail biting, which is a common problem with confined pigs.
Ear Notching: Cutting notches into the ears of piglets, commonly used as a way to identify them. Generally done without pain killers.
“The Pit”: Refers to a common waste management system which has slatted floors in pig housing areas for manure to fall through into a manure pit below the building.