One of Australia’s leading supermarket chains, Coles, has been running a major advertising campaign highlighting the fact that its “Coles Brand” fresh pork and local and imported ham and bacon products are now sow stall free.

Here’s celebrity chef Curtis Stone with Coles’ Head of Responsible Sourcing and Quality, Jackie Healing, discussing the firm’s recent initiatives:

Some extracts:

Curtis Stone: So now that we’ve changed the production of pork, what does that actually mean for the customer?

Jackie Healing: Well, it means they can buy great quality pork and they can be confident that the animals used to make that pork have been treated properly. It’s really important to treat the animals with respect.

Unfortunately, the act of removing sow stalls will not, on its own, guarantee a good outcome for pigs.

Going back to Jackie Healing’s comment, let’s consider the question of respect.

Is it respectful to:

  • confine an animal indoors for her entire life, in a continual cycle of pregnancy and birth?
  • confine her in a farrowing crate (which is even more restrictive than a sow stall) for twenty-four hours per day for up to six weeks on end?
  • cart her off to the slaughterhouse when she can no longer become pregnant?
  • kill pigs for food between four and twelve months of age, when they would otherwise live for around ten years?
  • cut an animal’s tail off without pain relief in the first few days of life?
  • cut large pieces out of the animal’s ears without pain relief?
  • clip his or her teeth to the gum line without pain relief?
  • castrate him without pain relief?[i]

Some of those horrors occur in traditional farming, so the cruelty is not limited to the “factory” variety.

VID00096-2Image: Pigs awaiting slaughter, Melbourne, Australia, January, 2013

Has factory farming ended?

Contrary to what campaigning group Care2 recently reported, the move by Coles on sow stalls does not mean an end to the factory farming of pigs among Coles’ suppliers. Sow stalls are only one aspect of factory farming, and even Coles is allowing them to be used for up to 24 hours per pregnancy.

Similarly, this video from Mercy for Animals indicates that sow stalls have been banned in Australia. That is incorrect. A partial, voluntary ban by producer-owned Australian Pork Ltd (APL) will be phased in by 2017, but there is no legislative ban. The APL ban will still allow for up to 11 days of confinement, and is not binding on individual producers.

A partial legislative ban to be  introduced in Tasmania will allow sow stalls to be used for up to 10 days after mating. This will occur despite the Tasmanian government previously announcing that it would introduce a 6 week limit on sow stalls in 2014, and then ban them altogether by 2017.

Even to the extent that the conditions and treatment of pigs may improve as a result of Coles’ initiative, the appropriate inspection regime is critical. Pigs were let down horrifically in that regard in the cases of (for example) Oliver’s Piggery and Wally’s Piggery. At the time of the Oliver’s investigation, the piggery was supplying 20 percent of the fresh pork sold by Coles’ major competitor, Woolworths, in Tasmania.

Do Coles’ customers really understand how pigs are treated?

Rather than a desire on its own part to reduce suffering, Coles says the initiative to remove sow stalls “is a response to demand from our customers for more responsibly sourced products”.

Accordingly, it would be helpful to know the extent to which Coles’ customers are aware of other forms of cruelty that are legally and routinely imposed on the pigs they eat. In focus group sessions and other forms of interaction with customers, has Coles informed them that (for example) piglets are routinely mutilated without pain relief and that sows may still live their entire lives indoors?

If Coles’ customers want to avoid cruelty, then more action is required

ABC Radio National’s  Bush Telegraph program, together with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, presented the inaugural “AgTalks” event in Melbourne on 22nd November, 2012.

A live panel discussion and audience Q&A considered the notion: “Australians don’t care where their food comes from, as long as it’s cheap and looks good”.

The panel included John Durkan, Merchandise Director of Coles.

The event was broadcast on Monday, 26 November, 2012. You can see details of the program, and hear the podcast, here.

Question to John Durkan, Coles from Paul Mahony, Melbourne Pig Save:

In terms of animal cruelty, do you think your customers are aware  . . . of the legalised cruelty that still exists in terms of mutilation of piglets, for example, without anaesthetic? That is tail docking, ear notching, teeth clipping, castration, etc., and should consumers be made aware of those sorts of things to help their [purchasing] choices?

Response from John Durkan:

It’s quite a deep and broad issue, so do consumers think that deeply and broadly about it? . . . We get no information back to say that they do. What they do want to know is that there is no cruelty to animals, that they’re treated well, they are grown in the right conditions, and exactly what we’re doing with sow stalls and free range and not selling caged eggs is for the very reason that consumers tell us that they want to move in this direction.

If, as John Durkan says, customers “want to know that there is no cruelty to animals, that they’re treated well, they are grown in the right conditions”, then why is legalised cruelty still occurring routinely?

As reported in an earlier blog post, animal food production is exempt from cruelty laws in relation to many routine practices.

What should Coles do if it wants to help customers avoid treating animals cruelly?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Ban mutilation of piglets among its suppliers, including: tail docking; ear notching; teeth clipping; and castration.
  • If Coles will not agree to that, then ban such mutilation in the absence of adequate pain relief.
  • Ban farrowing crates, which are even more restrictive than sow stalls. The crates can be used before and after the sow gives birth.
  • Make natural lighting and adequate exposure to the outdoors compulsory.
  • Lobby governments to take on an auditing role, rather than relying (in Australia) on the producer-owned Australian Pork Ltd to cordinate the task. (Coles says that “all farms supplying Coles Brand pork are regularly audited to confirm they maintain their sow stall free status”. It is possible that Coles is undertaking some or all of the auditing itself, as its standards on sow stalls differ from those of APL.)

556603_10152104860180422_369496804_nImage showing some of the joys of a farrowing crate.  Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals with Igualdad Animal / Animal Equality

The most effective approach

The most effective way to avoid treating animals cruelly is to stop using them in food and other products.

If you haven’t already adopted that approach, why not think about it? You have the power to fundamentally improve the lives of animals who are deprived of that power themselves.

How do you go about it?

Vegan Easy is a great place to start, including recipes, information and inspirational stories.

Best of luck on an enlightening journey!

Blog Author: Paul Mahony (Also on Twitter & Slideshare)


[i]   It should be noted that castration, while permitted, does not occur as routinely in Australia as in some other countries.