Just off a country road north of Winnipeg, in the nearly featureless winter landscape of rural Manitoba, there is a series of nondescript barn buildings. The only hint of what goes on inside is a sign posted in the driveway that reads “Highest Productivity Sow Farm.” It is unlikely anyone passing by would give the place, or any other like it anywhere in Canada, a second thought. That may be about to change.
This Saturday, CTV’s W5 program will broadcast secretly recorded video of how the pork available in major supermarkets everywhere begins its life. It is not easy viewing. After screening it, the CEO of Canada’s Federation of Humane Societies, Barbara Cartwright, predicted Canadians are in for a shock. “They are not used to seeing this,” she said. “They still believe animals are being raised in the old farm style.”
The reality could hardly be more different. The video shows what amounts to a living production line with thousands of pregnant sows, each held in a tiny metal stall where they will spend the nearly four months of their gestation. When they are ready, they are transferred to a slightly larger stall called a farrowing crate where they will give birth. After three weeks, the piglets are then sent away for fattening and eventual slaughter while the sows are returned to the gestation crates, re-impregnated to start the cycle again.
The man who secretly videotaped the operation worked at the barn for nearly three months last summer and early fall. He continues to work on other animal welfare investigations. He agreed to speak about his experiences on the condition his identity is not disclosed.
“The conditions are horrible,” he told W5 in an interview. “Nothing could prepare me for what I saw. There are thousands of pregnant pigs in these crates nearly their entire lives.”
The video also shows piglets having their tails cut, the males among them being castrated, all without anesthetic. Sub-standard piglets are killed using a method called thumping. It consists of an employee swinging the animal by its hind legs, striking its head against any nearby hard object, the remains thrown into a pile, some piglets appearing to be still alive. Sows that are no longer productive are dispatched using a device that fires a bolt into the brain. But it does not always appear to work effectively.
Dr. Mary Richardson, who chaired the Animal Welfare Committee for the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, viewed the video and wrote, “It clearly shows evidence of abuse and neglect leading to tremendous unnecessary suffering.” An Alberta based veterinarian, Dr. Debi Zimmerman wrote bluntly, “These animals endure a life filled with privations, unrelenting physical, mental pain and emotional distress.” And after watching images of one employee appearing to botch the task of euthanizing a fully grown pig, Dr. Ian Duncan of the University of Guelph, called it, “…the worst cruelty inflicted on an animal that I have witnessed in many years.”
While the images may be disturbing, experts interviewed by W5 concluded that the actions of the farm staff are within accepted industry standards and likely did not break any laws.
The sow farm is owned by a major Manitoba pork producer, Puratone, that is based in Niverville, a town just south of Winnipeg. It turned down repeated requests to be interviewed, but after two weeks of back-and-forth communication with W5 was provided an opportunity to screen the video at its headquarters.
President and Chief Executive Officer Ray Hildebrand provided the following statement: “We are disturbed by some of the images shown in this video, which do not reflect our principles or our animal welfare policy and operating procedures. We have launched an immediate investigation and corrective actions are underway.
“Over our 25 years of farming operations we have strictly followed the provincial regulations regarding animal welfare … and we have two veterinarians on staff to support this mandate.”
The letter implies that the video is highlighting the actions of a few who are the exception in an industry that otherwise, takes animal welfare seriously.
Those responsible for the undercover video disagree. They are part of a group called Mercy for Animals. It is American-based but is expanding north with a new chapter called Mercy for Animals Canada. It says its Manitoba investigation is the first of its kind done in Canada, the world's second largest pork exporter.
The group points out that castration and tail docking without anesthetic, the use of thumping and bolt guns to euthanize, and confinement of animals in tiny stalls are all standard across Canada. But not elsewhere.
Kate Parkes, who is the Senior Scientific Officer for the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals concluded, “Some of what is seen in the video is poor practice and some of it would be illegal over here (in the U.K.).”
Critics of Canada’s standards often cite the methods of confining pigs as an example of how the country is lagging behind others, particularly in Europe. Dr. Parkes said, “Gestation crates are illegal in the U.K. They were banned in 1999 on welfare grounds.” The rest of Europe will follow suit in the new year.
Canada’s pork producers do follow a set of rules, appropriately called the Pig Code of Practice, that hasn’t changed in 20 years. Animal welfare activists say the code was outdated even before it was written.
One of the activists who helped plan the hidden camera operation is Twyla Francois, the Head of Investigations at Mercy for Animals Canada, and well-known to the industry. She argues that pork producers are not intentionally cruel, but are working “…with a set of standards and a system of rearing animals that’s inappropriate and this is the result, unbelievable suffering.”
Canada’s producers agree that the standards are in need of change, but there is reluctance to move quickly. Andrew Dickson, with the Manitoba Pork Council told W5 that the practice of crating pigs was created to protect them from hurting and competing with one another. “We’re being careful with change,” he said, “because with a new system there’s no guarantee that these animals will have the same level of care that we might have had with the previous system.”
And in fact, the whole process of change appears to have stalled. On November 20, the National Farm Animal Care Council that will set the new farm standards wrote, “We know our industry is going through a very bad time financially. At the end of the day, if the producers can not incorporate changes that we’re proposing, their option is either to go out of business or perhaps put themselves in a very negative financial position.”
The industry in other words is arguing that for now, change is a luxury it cannot afford. Animal welfare groups will argue, it is the status quo that the country cannot afford. But the undercover video will give animal activists a powerful boost for their argument.
The image of production lines of animals being bred, raised and killed to provide low-cost meat, cannot be made pretty. It’s why the doors of the Canada’s pig farms have been kept firmly closed. Until now.