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Food Marketing Institute Issues First Report on Animal Welfare

Livestock Update, September 2002

Allen Harper, Extension Animal Scientist Swine, Tidewater AREC

The major trade organization representing 2,300 retail and wholesale food companies and over 26,000 retail food stores has issued a report on animal welfare recommendations for livestock and poultry produced to supply its members. The Food Marketing Institute (FMI) issued this initial report in June of this year in conjunction with the National Council of Chain Restaurants (NCCR) with indications that additional reports would be published as FMI continues to work with animal welfare experts and representatives of the livestock and poultry industries. This direct involvement of major food wholesalers and retailers in development of animal welfare guidelines has important implications for swine producers as well as other livestock and poultry producers.

The report comes after nearly two years of review of production practices, animal welfare research and dialogue by the FMI and NCCR with experts in the fields of animal welfare and animal production. Representatives of the pork industry included in the process were Dr. Paul Sundberg, DVM and the National Pork Board's assistant vice-president for Veterinary Issues and Dr. John Deen, DVM and Director of the University of Minnesota's Swine Center. Other food animal organizations involved in the process included the National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation, United Egg Producers, the Dairy Quality Assurance Center and National Cattleman's Beef Association. Headings in the Guidelines section of the report included "Transportation and Slaughter Practices" (relative to all food animal species), "Breeding and Rearing" (relative to all species), "Laying Hens", "Dairy Cattle", "Swine", "Broilers and Turkeys", and "Cattle - Ranch and Feedlot."

For swine production, the principle issue addressed by the report was housing of gestating sows. Sow housing is a logical first issue to address by FMI because of the current debate and scrutiny of individual sow gestation stalls as a primary means of confining sows during breeding and pregnancy. The individual sow gestation stall is under intense criticism by PETA or the People for Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights activist groups. Some of these groups have mobilized campaigns to introduce legislation that would ban the use of individual sow gestation stalls as a means of housing and confining sows. For example, in Florida an organization called "Floridians for Humane Farms" has collected the 488,722 certified signatures required to put a proposal on the November ballot in Florida that, if passed, would ban the use of individual sow gestation stalls in that state. Ironically, compared to other swine producing states, swine production in Florida is miniscule and less than a handful of Florida farms producing hogs employ gestation stalls as part of their sow housing system. Some industry observers have suggested that animal rights and welfare groups select small production states such as Florida to introduce legislation with the strategy that passage there would ultimately lead to similar laws in larger production states.

Criticism of individual sow gestation stalls centers on the fact that sows are confined in a small area, typically within a 2 by 7 foot stall area. Negative characteristics identified include the inability of the sow to turn around in her stall, reduced physical exercise, decreased social interaction experienced by the sow and, in some instances greater distress experienced by the sow due to the close confinement imposed by gestation stall housing systems. Indeed some research has shown that individual gestation stalls may increase "steriotypic behaviors" such as sham chewing (chewing with no object in the mouth) and bar biting as coping mechanisms in situations of increased stress. However, to a large degree, use of gestation stalls evolved as a more efficient means to provide better observation, care and management of individual sows as breeding farms became larger and more specialized.

Welfare concerns can also be identified when sows are penned in groups. Problems associated with group housing systems include more aggression and fighting injuries among sows. Group penning can result in poorly controlled feed consumption, with dominant sows becoming overly fat and timid sows becoming undernourished. There is also some difficulty in identifying sows in heat and segregating sows for breeding purposes with group pen systems.

The FMI report appears to have given careful consideration to the advantages and disadvantages associated with individual gestation stall-housing systems. In this first report four key features were put forth as guidelines for gestation housing facilities for sows. These are:

The report stated that FMI and NCCR will continue to assess animal welfare issues that are important to their wholesale and retail food service members. With regards to housing sows, the report acknowledged that there are welfare concerns with both group housing and individual stall housing systems. However, the report also issued a challenge to the swine industry to develop a plan for "implementing systems that will improve the welfare of pregnant sows."

It is well known that consumers desire meat products that are flavorful, affordable, nutritious and healthful. The take home message of the Food Marketing Institute's Animal Welfare Report is that consumers are also becoming increasingly concerned about the welfare and conditions under which food animals are produced.

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