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These little piggies go to market

Luisa D’Amato, Waterloo Region Record, July 12, 2021

The hogs are just a few minutes away from death.

High-pitched screams pierce the warm air at Conestoga Meat Packers, a pork processing plant near Breslau.

Men with plastic paddles push the dusty animals, each as heavy as a football player, toward a covered, metal passageway.

Often the pigs are calm and quiet as they enter the passageway, says George Wilson, assistant manager of the plant. But today the weather is unusually hot and humid, which can upset them. They may even see the shadows of visitors walking nearby, which is unnerving.

“Keep to the left so they don’t see you,” Wilson says.

The hogs press forward to a chamber filled with carbon dioxide gas. It’s a state-of-the-art machine made in Denmark and designed to make death as painless as possible.

They enter the cages two by two.

Fifty seconds later, they’ve breathed in enough carbon dioxide to make them deeply unconscious.

They fall out of the chamber, their heavy pink bodies jiggling from the impact on the metal platform.

A hind leg on every pig is hoisted by a chain to an overhead track, so the animals hang upside down. A young man with a knife slits their throats, one after the other. Blood pours and drips into a metal trough below their heads.

It’s an assembly line of 2,600 pigs a day. And with each step, each pig becomes less like an animal and more like meat.

The hogs’ bodies are immersed in scalding water to loosen their hair. Then it’s removed by stiff brushes and a quick burst of flame.

The skin is washed.

The carcasses are now pale pink and completely smooth. They’re split in half, eviscerated, inspected and weighed.

They’re refrigerated for 24 hours until their temperature is about 4 C, then taken into another part of the plant to be cut up.

About 90 people work quickly and cheerfully in the cutting room. They guide the carcasses under a laser light, which in turn guides a circular saw that cuts the bodies into sections.

In the cool air, they de-bone, trim fat off hams, toss different cuts into waist-high cardboard boxes lined with thick plastic.

Almost every pig brought to the slaughterhouse is locally raised.

They’re owned by 150 farmers from “Hog Alley” — a swath of southern Ontario that includes Huron and Perth counties and Waterloo Region.

These farmers are part of the Progressive Pork Producers Co-operative Inc., which owns this plant.

About 60 per cent of the meat processed at the plant will stay in Canada. The rest will be exported.

Severed pigs’ heads are piled up in one box, some with mouths and eyes half-open. These will be sent to Quebec, where a processor makes dog chews from the ears, then sends the snouts and cheeks on to China and Vietnam, where they’re considered delicacies.
Loins are sent to Japan and Korea, where a thick marbling of fat is prized.

Leg bones, full of juicy marrow, go to Japan to make soup.

Trotters are sent to the Caribbean, where they are a delicacy when pickled.

Livers and snow-white fat trimmings are prized for sausages by Russians.

The ribs, chops and tenderloins tend to stay in North America. They’re sent to Zehrs, Sobeys and other grocery stores or to companies that supply restaurants.

“Nothing’s wasted,” Wilson says proudly.

Not even the innards. The intestines and some organs go to a rendering plant, part of the blood eventually becomes fish food, and the pancreases are carefully gathered and sent to pharmaceutical companies, where they’re used in diabetes research.

Conestoga Meat Packers doesn’t collect the heart valves, but these can be used in operations on human hearts, because a pig’s body is so close to a human’s.

A newborn piglet weighs about two pounds, just under one kilogram, when it’s born. By the time it’s six months old and ready for market, it will be 250 pounds, about 110 kilograms.

It has been bred to gain lean weight as quickly as possible. Everything, from the semen that creates them to the feed they eat with abandon, is chosen scientifically, methodically, to yield the most meat possible.

As soon as they’re ready to reproduce, breeding sows are in a constant cycle of pregnancy and nursing for the rest of their lives.

Sows are usually slaughtered at four or five years old, when their best reproduction years are over. Their meat is tough, fit only for salami or sausage.

If treated well, a pig can live for 10 years or more. But most live only six months before they’re slaughtered.

Sows are usually artificially inseminated and give birth five months later to a litter of piglets.

After three weeks or so, the piglets are weaned. The sow goes into heat again after another week, and the cycle begins again.

Young pigs grow quickly. They’ll add a kilogram of body weight for every 2.5 kilograms of feed eaten. This is twice as efficient as beef cattle or sheep.

Clare Schlegel, a hog farmer near New Hamburg with 2,500 sows producing 15,000 hogs a year, says pigs are raised indoors to protect them from disease and to ensure a warm, dry environment.

Anyone who wants to enter the barn must shower first and change into clothes that are worn only inside the barn. Even “a speck of something” could make them sick.

The average pig raised indoors gains about 900 grams a day, but raised outdoors, it will gain only 600 grams a day, says Schlegel, president of the Canadian Pork Council.

The pigs’ feed is a carefully combined mixture of corn, soybeans, milk protein, wheat by-products and leftovers from bakeries. Some farms, though not Schlegel’s, add meat by-products as well.

Antibiotics are given only when the pigs are sick.

Schlegel knows that animal rights activists have attacked the practice of confining pregnant sows in individual “gestation stalls” so compact they can’t turn around.

In some parts of Europe, these stalls are being phased out. Last year, American pork-processing giant Smithfield Foods, which owns pig farms in the United States, said it would do the same.

But these stalls make sense for farmers, Schlegel says.

Sows have their own “pecking order.” If they could move freely, the dominant ones would take more than their fair share of food, and they might attack the others.

“When animals are put in big groups, they’re not always kind to each other,” Schlegel says.

Each stall has a food dish at one end and an opening for excrement at the other. If the stalls were made bigger and the sows could turn around, they’d defecate in their food, he says.

Pig farmers are under massive financial stress.

Schlegel refers to it as a “perfect storm,” combining the high Canadian dollar, soaring feed costs and an oversupply of hogs.

“It’s a disaster,” he says.

In an industry where a lot of business is conducted across the U.S. border, hog farmers are no different from auto workers. The high Canadian dollar means that imports are cheaper here, while our goods are harder to sell abroad.

Meanwhile, feed prices have doubled since 2006. Corn prices are up, thanks to the increased use of corn in ethanol fuel production and also the rising worldwide demand for animal feed. As people in China and India get wealthier, they’re eating more meat.

High corn prices are great if you’re a farmer who raises corn. But they’re catastrophic if you raise hogs that eat corn.

As well, Canadian hogs were hit a couple of years ago with a terrible wasting disease known as circovirus. An effective vaccine was developed to combat the disease.

Now there is an oversupply of healthy pigs.

And as any student of basic economics knows, when there’s too much of something for sale, the price goes down.

It adds up to these numbers: At today’s feed prices of $350 a tonne, it costs about $180 to raise a hog. A farmer can sell that hog for only $130. That’s a loss of $50 on each pig.

The federal government tried to help earlier this year by offering farmers cash if they killed 150,000 breeding sows across the country, reducing the supply of hogs by about 10 per cent.

But the effects won’t be felt until early next year.

Some farmers are walking away from their life’s work, having lost every scrap of equity.

Others are holding on but borrowing heavily — as much as half a million dollars — just to stay viable as they gamble on better times soon.

Despite these difficulties, farmers who are still in business make every effort to protect and comfort their pigs.

Even at the slaughterhouse.

The pigs’ experience at Conestoga Meat Packers has been influenced by the work of Temple Grandin, an American expert on animal behaviour.

Grandin, who is autistic and sees the world from the point of view of larger animals like cattle and hogs, has become the guru of slaughterhouse design. Her goal is to help keep them calm and quiet.

A professor at Colorado State University, she has shown that small things — a flickering shadow, a discarded coffee cup nearby, a change in flooring material — can upset them.

She also says electric prods should be used as little as possible. Plastic paddles are less upsetting.

There’s a hard-headed financial reason to follow her advice.

Hogs that are too stressed in the minutes and even seconds before death will release hormones that make their meat blotchy, with parts of it so pale, soft and watery, it can’t be sold.

There’s also the reason that pigs deserve comfort, even in those last few moments.

Bob Hunsberger, chair of the co-operative, was a hog farmer himself for 40 years. He was 10 years into the business before he watched pigs being slaughtered for the first time.

It wasn’t easy.

Hunsberger believes that he and other hog farmers have a “contract” with pigs.

He tells a story, a fable really, in which pigs agreed, thousands of years ago, to be domesticated by humans and to give their lives so that humans could eat and make medical advances.

In return, he says, humans promised to use technology to improve the pigs’ lives and make them as comfortable, warm and protected as possible while they were alive.

“And when the time came for them,” he says, “we agreed they would never see it coming.”


Posted by Admin on July 22nd, 2009 :: Filed under Canada, Meat/slaughter plants, Pork
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