At a World Pork Expo news conference last month in Des Moines, IA, National Pork Board CEO Chris Novak made it clear that the rush to prohibit pork suppliers from housing sows in gestation stalls is a judgment made in haste and without any basis in science.
“We know that the dynamics and decision-making process (on this issue) needs change, simply from the standpoint that there needs to be due diligence and a full understanding of the animal welfare implications of the decisions some of these food companies are making. They need to ensure that they are looking at the sustainability of our pork production systems moving into the future,” he told a throng of media attendees.
Their decision, made without rationale and without full understanding of all of the consequences, endangers the progress the pork industry has made in the areas of animal welfare and the environment for pigs, Novak stresses.
Defining the Argument
To invoke a policy of only accepting pork from sows in open pens based on apparent consumer perceptions or wishes applies a simple solution to a very complex problem of whether stalls or pens provide the best animal welfare, according to Paul Sundberg, DVM, vice president of Science and Technology at the National Pork Board.
“The issue here is how to enable the pork producers to make the best choice that will address the animal welfare of a sow. The science behind pens vs. stalls is very clear — stalls are not good; stalls are not bad; pens are not good; pens are not bad. They are the same,” Sundberg affirms.
The science behind stalls vs. pens unequivocally supports that stalls are not any better or any worse than pens, according to research conducted by John McGlone at Texas Tech University, the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Australian government, to name a few (See sidebar for a summary of a decade of Pork Checkoff-funded research on parameters affecting sow gestation housing).
“You can make pens good; you can make stalls good. You can also make both of them very bad. It depends on how they are managed,” Sundberg explains.
Therefore, both systems are equivalent in terms of efficiency, provided they are managed properly, he notes.
Some say the pork industry wants to defend the status quo. Sundberg disagrees. “The industry’s efforts are in defense of the sows and the producers’ and veterinarians’ abilities to make decisions as to the best welfare of the sows,” Sundberg emphasizes.
Decisions must take into account production, behavioral and physiological measures of the sows that can be assessed. Assessing any one of those components in isolation results in misleading conclusions, he adds.
When food suppliers make hasty decisions that in effect ban sow gestation stalls, they are taking the ability to make management decisions away from pork producers and imposing management decisions on them.
Whether forcing producers to move sows from stalls to pens or vice versa, “you may be forcing them into something that they are not equipped for and that will affect sow welfare,” he says. In that situation, producers will do one of two things — either they will leave the industry or they will implement the change in a manner that may not be the best for the sows’ welfare or for production efficiency, Sundberg adds.
Whether it is pens or stalls, Sundberg questions the ethics of forcing producers into a different sow housing system when they are already doing a good job.
“That’s the point. Our effort is
to enable producers to have freedom of choice to do business. The
business practices for one farm may be different than for another farm, but the outcome will be the same. And the outcome is welfare; the outcome is efficiency; the outcome is the ethical principles of We Care,” Sundberg says.
Without choice, it’s likely that forcing producers to switch to open gestation pens will raise production costs, speed the demise of small producers and further diminish the numbers of family pork operations, he says.
Sundberg says National Pork Board officials will be working hard to inform food supply decision-makers about the potential consequences of their decisions and to provide information to help them make appropriate decisions for sow housing.