Michigan’s Pork Industry future: No more gestation stalls as of April 1, 2020

Sow housing mandate changes are here.

a pig looking at the camera

This article considers enforcement of Act No. 117, Public Acts of 2009 and how farmers should be prepared for transparency about their breeding herd facilities and management.

Nearly 10 years have passed since Act No. 117, Public Acts of 2009 was signed with a provision that it would become effective 10-years later, on April 1, 2020. Because of that legislation, after that date, “a farm owner or operator shall not tether or confine any covered animal on a farm for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from doing any of the following: lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, and turning around freely.”

Exemptions include sows undergoing individual treatment. According to Pork Quality Assurance Plus (PQA Plus) and Common Swine Industry Audit (CSIA), treatment of an animal may include whether the sow has been identified by caretakers and are receiving attention and treatment. The farm’s veterinarian can help to develop a treatment plan that includes isolating sick or lame sows in a stall. Another exemption to Act No. 117 allows sows to be held in stalls pre-farrowing for up to 7 days before their expected date of giving birth.

As the enactment date of this legislation nears, there are several questions for Michigan’s pork industry. Are Michigan pork farmers, able to comply with this law by April 1, 2020? In the past 10 years, have all gestation facilities been converted to housing systems that allow for the criteria set forth in Act No. 117 to be met? If not, what does that mean for farming operations that may be out of compliance?

There are actions set forth by this legislation which are accompanied by penalties. The law states that the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) or the attorney general “may bring a civil action to restrain, by temporary or permanent injunction, any act or practice in violation of this section. The action may be brought in the circuit court for the county where the defendant resides or conducts business. The court may issue a temporary or permanent injunction and issue other equitable orders or judgments.” Meaning a judge could suspend a farm’s ability to house sows in stalls which violate the law.

Dr. Jim Kober, Assistant State Veterinarian in charge of the swine program says that “MDARD’s role in verification will be a combination of looking at SOP’s and production records, discussions with farm personnel (including the herd veterinarian), and possible site inspections.” MDARD will follow-up on information submitted to them about sow farms that are not complying with this law. According to Act 117, if a third-party audit is required, the farm will be responsible for the audit costs.

If comments are made to local Animal Control officials, will they respond? At this time, it appears unlikely that animal control officers will respond to informants as they are not defined in Act 117 as having authority as a regulatory agency in these types of situations.

The most prominent enforcers of this bill may be the packers, processors and retail chains, who will need appropriate organization and documentation to sell pork products into states that have passed a ban on the sale of pork from breeding animals “raised confined in a noncomplying manner” according to California Proposition 12. Like other industries, appropriate organization and documentation of production practices and facilities will be required of the product chain. Traceability is being based on production practices. Enforcement will fall on the shoulders of the marketers so they can continue to sell pork products into states that have passed a ban on sale of pork from breeding animals “raised confined in a noncomplying manner.”

Enforcement will follow a corporate policy commitment to market in as many locations or states as profitable. California has passed such a law for meat and eggs. It states that all pork sold within their states be from the “immediate offspring of breeding pigs” housed in areas with 24 or more square feet of usable floor space where they can lie down, stand up, turn around and fully extend their limbs, freely. Massachusetts, Washington, Oregon and Michigan will have similar restrictions for the sale of eggs from cage-free systems, only. The market chain in each state will need to make sure that all farmers, within and out-of-state, whose eggs are sold in these states, follow each states legislation regarding production approaches.

Our industry audit programs PQA Plus and CSIA may provide packers, processors and retailers with the knowledge that some farms are not in compliance with Act 117. The possibility exists that housing pregnant females in stalls may be considered a “willful act of abuse” in states where the conventional gestation stall is banned. Act 117 will most assuredly increase the importance of these two auditing programs. If packers, processors and retailers are not able to use industry audit programs, or choose not to use them, then the other possibility is that they would develop or strengthen their own auditing programs. We know that some have kept their own auditing programs even with the agreement to use CSIA.

Currently, Proposition 12 in California addressed the offspring of pregnant swine only. It does not address clearly, pork harvested from the sows, themselves. If retailors in a state decides that all incoming products, like sausage, must be acquired from sows that were not housed in gestation stalls, we do not know how sow buying stations and sow packers will be impacted. A sow processor with a facility in Michigan, can at times, buy animals for harvest from multiple states. As some states do not have gestating sow-housing laws, individual sow identification related back to a premise ID will be required to keep track of sow origination.

Other records that likely will need to be kept, will be those associated with timing of confirmation of pregnancy or preg-checking. Act 117 governs the housing of “any confirmed pregnant sow.” The confirmation of pregnancy (days post-breeding or post-service) will vary from farm to farm. The confirmation and documentation of when a female is officially known to be pregnant will be critical enforcement obligation. Printed reports of pregnancy confirmation generated by herd management software programs may be documentation requested in a MDARD investigation.

Many swine producers in the state have made the changes to their facilities and housing gestating sows according to the requirements of Act 117. They are ready to share with MDARD, packer, buying station, processor and retailer that they meet all requirements. These producers are poised to grasp the share of the domestic market that regulates sow housing. For those that may not have changed all their gestating sow housing, there is a risk for complaint-driven enforcement by public stakeholders and undercover activists.

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