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Conscience Costs: Some farmers ignore industry standards

A year ago, the Calgary Co-op resolved to phase out “intensive confinement cages” for pigs and chickens. But it’s just not that easy

Jul 7, 2014

by Allison Myggland

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Photograph Ryan Girard

Disturbing videos taken at two Alberta poultry farms last year showed that, although industry standards exist, some farmers would rather risk being caught with egg on their faces than operate according to a voluntary code.

“We’ve survived by having the best management we can, very good feed mills, trying to keep our costs down, and trying to scratch out a little bit of a premium in the marketplace.” – Bryan Perkins, chairman, Sunhaven Farms, on operating with open pens

The undercover videos, shot at Ku-Ku Farms in Morinville and Creekside Grove Farms in Spruce Grove, show thousands of chicks and chickens crammed into wire cages, covered in feces, sick and injured, some killed by having their heads smashed against the floor. Amin Valji, the owner of the farms, is a board member of the Egg Farmers of Alberta (EFA). The EFA sent a veterinarian and investigators out to the farms to examine the conditions first-hand. Valji received numerous operational recommendations, but he was never fined by the self-regulating industry body or charged with animal cruelty.

Even before the undercover video was released, a growing number of consumers were educating themselves on the realities of factory farming. One such consumer is Clint Robertson, an urban planner in Calgary and a vocal member of Calgary Co-op. Robertson, who grew up on a small mixed-use farm in southern Saskatchewan, has been calling for the Co-op to address consumer concerns about production methods and begin sourcing pork and eggs from farms that do not house a­nimals in “intensive confinement cages,” including battery cages for chickens and gestation stalls for pigs. “I grew up around animals and it’s just inherently obvious that living like that goes against their natural behaviours,” he says. Because the Co-op takes into account feedback from its membership, Robertson says, “I felt that I could do something about it.” After years of ineffective phone calls and one-on-one discussion with the Co-op, Robertson decided to write a resolution and present it to members and the board at the Co-op’s annual general meeting in March 2013.

Robertson’s resolution called for the retailer to phase out intensive confinement cages and recommended that the Co-op work with suppliers to find alternatives sourced from farms using other methods within three years. Members at the AGM amended his original resolution to extend the deadline to five years, then two-thirds voted in favour. “I thought if I could enact some movement on behalf of Calgary Co-op that it could really get the industry’s attention and influence the sourcing decisions for Co-ops across the prairies,” Robertson says.

Now that more than 80 per cent of Albertans are living in urban areas, the distance between the meat on our plate and the industrial farms where animals are raised has never been greater. Over the past several decades, the pork industry has moved toward a model that confines pregnant sows in narrow cages and prevents them from rearing upwards, moving backwards, turning around or lying down. The sows remain in cages from the time of breeding through the birth of their litters and until they are slaughtered.

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Photograph Joey Podlubny

Similarly, the vast majority of eggs sold in grocery stores are produced in giant warehouses where the hens are grouped together in rows and rows of compact wire cages that are too small to allow freedom of movement. The reality is that 80 per cent of eggs and the vast majority of pork comes from farms that use intensive confinement cages, and many farmers have a lot invested in maintaining the status quo. For both the pork and egg industries, there are significant production advantages to using the cages. They allow for strict control over feeding and allow farmers to have unencumbered access to each animal at all times – all while taking up much less floor space. It costs money to upgrade these housing systems, and the upfront capital costs and higher maintenance costs are something that would need to be reflected in the price to consumers.

Overseas, the European Union banned conventional cages at the ­beginning of 2012, and California began to follow suit in 2013. As more and more consumers become aware of exactly how their food is produced, the social licence to operate with these conditions is nearing the expiration date.

Robertson’s resolution certainly got the media and the retailer’s attention. The Co-op was praised for its forward-thinking agenda and given a lot of positive press following the AGM. Almost immediately, representatives from the Co-op began looking into the ethics and the economics behind the issue. “It was a great resolution and a great thought process by the person that brought it up and presented it,” says Ken Woo, the Co-op’s interim CEO. “We tried to approach the resolution as best as we could. Our job is to listen to our membership, and to understand what their needs are, but we have to be practical at the same time.” Woo says that after consulting with producers, the Co-op decided it would be “fairly impossible” to get rid of pork that is sourced from confinement cages within five years. “The reason is that there’s just not enough gestation-cage-free pork producers to supply everybody,” Woo says.

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The Co-op continues to sell eggs and pork from caged animals but has since expanded the selection of humanely raised options
Photograph Joey Podlubny

But that’s not the line the Co-op is using across the board. The Co-op’s outgoing CEO, Deane Collinson, was quoted in an interview in Canadian Grocer last January. “We think animal welfare will be a huge issue going forward, so much so that over the next five years we will phase out eggs and pork products from farm operations that use intensive ­confinement cages,” he said. Woo, on the other hand, is hedging his bets. “It wasn’t like we ignored [the resolution],” he says. “We met with the producers, the associations. We went through what was the best way to ­approach this, and since that time we came out with expanding our [specialty] eggs. And then we went out and expanded our pork and found a [new] producer.”

That producer is Wainwright’s Sunhaven Farms. ­Company chairman Bryan Perkins says running an operation with open pens isn’t easy. “It’s been real tough for everybody in this industry,” he says. “We’ve survived by having the best management we can, very good feed mills, trying to keep our costs down, and trying to scratch out a little bit of a premium in the marketplace. And it’s modest, but it’s a little bit.”

If it’s more expensive to run a hog farm with open pens, why has Sunhaven chosen to move away from the industry standard? “We decided some time ago that we would go with open gestation for our sows,” says Perkins. “We’re really not saying that one way is better than another, but they are different. And we think there are advantages to each. But we decided to go this route a number of years ago.” But Sunhaven is largely alone in the industry. It was the only producer in Alberta large enough to provide a consistent supply of open-pen pork to the Co-op.

Both conventional producers and retailers continue to shift responsibility away from themselves to consumers. They suggest that if consumers were interested in different production standards, they would buy more of the specialty products they already offer. At the same time, the Egg Farmers of Canada and Alberta Farm Animal Care say consumers shouldn’t pay more for specialty products when the current standards are satisfactory and in the animal’s best interest.

As an experienced farmer, Perkins knows a thing or two about the benefits and burdens of group housing versus individual cages. Pigs are intelligent and social creatures that create fluid social hierarchies. They may bully one another. But Perkins says there are a number of things farmers can do to address these behaviours beyond housing them in individual cages. Custom pen designs and human management at Sunhaven’s facilities have taken care of behavioural issues. Recognizing the consumer push for better animal husbandry, in 2014 the National Farm Animal Care Council released an updated code of practice for handling pigs. The document outlines new standards for housing, treatment and care. The standards are an improvement, but are not legislated and are largely unenforceable and leave confinement cages in place.

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Clint Robertson pushed the Calgary Co-op to examine phasing out eggs and pork produced in intensive confinement cages
Photograph Joey Podlubny

For its part, the egg industry is fighting pressure to change standards by suggesting there are advantages to all types of hen housing but emphasizes quantity of production, not living conditions or hen health. Ironically, conventional housing is described as a great way to ensure the chickens are safe from predators, as if the sole ­purpose of raising chickens wasn’t to use the animal for food.

However, the market for eggs is slowly shifting. Right now producers and retailers alike are capitalizing on consumers who are demanding eggs from what they view as more humane egg production facilities. “Specialty eggs,” those from chickens who are raised free-range, free-run, organically, in furnished housing or aviaries, are sold at a premium in stores. And although the market share remains low compared to conventional eggs, the numbers have been creeping higher. Since the resolution was brought to the AGM, the Co-op has expanded the range of eggs it offers to consumers. “We carry conventional housing eggs, enriched housing, free-range housing and organic eggs,” says Woo. “The Alberta market share of most specialty eggs is around 5.4 per cent and we’re at 26 per cent.” He says that’s a 45 per cent increase over the last year and a half.

According to numbers from the EFA, egg producers are moving away from conventional cages. In 2006, 98.5 per cent of Alberta’s egg farms were using conventional cages, and today that number is closer to 82 per cent. In addition, the EFA board voted to phase out conventional cages beginning at the end of 2014. No new barns will be built with conventional cages and any farms that undergo renovations or refurbishments must replace existing cages with another type of housing. Perhaps in response to the conditions on Valji’s farm, the board also moved to require that, as a condition of licensing, an egg producer must adhere to the animal care policy. The repercussions of non-compliance, however, remain unclear.

Unfortunately, for consumers like Robertson, his bold resolution to change the way a major Western retailer sources eggs and pork resulted only in the reminder that doing what is best for animal welfare is costly. For now anyways, the dollar reigns supreme.

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