I’m writing this week’s blog sitting in a motel room in Christchurch, New Zealand just prior to flying back to the US. After 4+ weeks of working with Australian and New Zealand pork producers, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the many advantages the US industry has and some of the challenges we have ahead of us.
In both Australia and New Zealand, there are national standards of animal care. Failure to follow the standards subjects a producer to potential fines and jail terms. The animal rights and animal welfare groups are very aware of these standards and have influenced the current care standards.
A little bit about New Zealand and Australia’s industries before I talk about the current status of the standards. New Zealand has around 32,000 sows and sells pigs targeting a 68 kg (150 lb) carcass. This weight is based on a 68% yield as they dress the carcasses with head on but feet off. Australia’s target sale weight is similar for the domestic market.
There is a mix of straw based housing systems and confinement in both countries. Australia is moving towards more confinement in the face of high straw costs and high feed grain prices. New Zealand is mostly confinement on the north island while the south island is almost all straw based production. Both countries have excellent genetics with the potential to rapidly and efficiently grow lean.
In Australia, the Tasmania government broke with the national animal care standards and imposed a ban on gestation stalls (don’t know if this is after 28 days of gestation or a complete ban). In addition, Coles (the largest supermarket chain) announced it would no longer buy pigs from producers who used stalls for any of their branded products. They have extended this ban to include imported pork products.
With this background, the Australian Pork Limited delegate body (same as our Pork Board Forum) last week voted to voluntarily phase out gestation stalls by 2017. They would still be used for 28 days after breeding, but after that, all gestating females will be housed in group pens of some type. In my discussions with producers, many see this as bowing to the inevitable and by taking this vote they are setting the pace for facility conversions and are setting the rules, rather than reacting to the rules of someone else. It remains to be seen whether their animal welfare groups will be satisfied with this decision. It also remains to be seen what the cost to the consumer will be.
In New Zealand, they are also facing a possible ban on the use of stalls. While the industry and Massey University have been involved in the discussions with MAF, MAF has the final say and many fear a total ban may be coming for this industry. As a country that imports a good share of the pork consumed (much of it from Canada), producers worry about the long term future of their industry. If the consumer doesn’t support the cost of the conversions by paying more for NZ reared pork, but instead chooses to eat cheaper imported pork, will this industry slowly die like England’s industry appears to be doing?
In England, the welfare community won legislation making production of English welfare approved pork more expensive than imported pork. Consumers have demonstrated with their checkbooks a preference for the lower cost imported pork. In New Zealand and Australia, will this same trend occur or will these markets be able to identify a trait in their product that will maintain consumer loyalty?
As a vet in NZ, I would like to know why there is ever any choice of importing cheaper pork to this country, or the UK, if it means that it was produced using sow stalls. Why is this still allowed anywhere in the world? With the right marketing most consumers will pay for meat that was not produced this way. There should be no choice if it is at the expense of the pigs. 28 days in a crate is reasonable for the piglets… A life sentence for the mother is not.