Poland’s lessons for Canadian pigs and pork

By Andrew Heck

No longer the daunting, forbidding country it once was, Poland’s meat industry is geared toward increasing production and developing emerging markets for its pork. Warsaw’s ‘Old Town,’ seen here, is actually a complete reconstruction after the city was levelled, in 1944.

From the widespread destruction of the Second World War to decades of forced isolation and repression behind the Iron Curtain, Poland has suffered through miserable times more than once in the past century alone. But now, this once-closed country has pulled back the drapes for business in many sectors, including meat.

Since joining the European Union (E.U.), in 2004, just 15 years after the country formally transitioned to democracy, in 1989, Poland has come a long way to developing its principal industries, especially agriculture. What was once driven by the need to fill production quotas to satisfy the power appetite of a strict government has grown into a blossoming, innovative and global system eager to integrate and compete with the world.

But with African Swine Fever’s (ASF) continual spread between Eurasian wild boar and farms of varying size, the Polish hog sector continues to face ongoing threats to production, processing and export. COVID-19 has created additional setbacks, and lingering political turmoil is always a threat.

To the west, Germany sets the hog price, and to the east, Russia remains an important but complicated pork-buying market. A dark and tragic past still haunts Poland, and to this day, it would seem that larger, more imposing forces still have a major role to play in the country’s trajectory – even in agri-food.

Unlike Poland, Canada does not have to carry so much historical baggage when it comes to doing business, even at a time when many Canadians are re-examining certain aspects of how our nation came to be. However, much like Poland, Canada has always been required to punch above its weight when it comes to being recognized on the world stage.

So how do the Polish and Canadian pig and pork industries stack up? A side-by-side look at the two countries reveals some crucial insights into where Poland has been and where Canada could be going.

Polish producers find themselves in a tight spot

During the ‘Meat with European Quality’ study tour, in November 2021, Polish government officials met with Canadian and American journalists at the federal agriculture ministry’s offices in Warsaw.

The Polish Union of Producers and Employers of Meat Industry (UPEMI) represents the country’s hog farmers before the E.U. Since 2005, the organization has grown into a full-scale advocacy group representing producers and managing their national quality assurance program. One could liken the group to the Canadian Pork Council (CPC), with a broader scope to cover multiple livestock commodities.

“ASF and avian flu are the biggest challenges for us,” said Wieslaw Rosanski, President, UPEMI. “The number of hog farms in Poland has been cut in half since 2014, when ASF first arrived here. Many smaller farmers are unable to recover and restart their operations after ASF forces them to depopulate.”

While the number of hog farms in Poland has rapidly decreased, the hog herd continues to grow, thanks to the rise of increasingly larger farms. But farm expansion, for many, is limited by certain factors. As a result, the sense in the Polish industry is not entirely positive for producers, who see too many threats that are not translating into opportunities.

“Hog prices are good, but that is not enough,” said Rosanski. “If farmers feel like they can be shut down at any moment, the risk is not worth it.”

Government financial support is available to compensate producers for losses due to ASF culling activities, but loss coverage alone is not enough to support long-term operational sustainability.

“We have an algorithm, and it is used to determine how much should be paid to a farmer, based on current market conditions,” said Ryszard Bartosik, Secretary of State, Polish Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. “This can be difficult for us when farmers have poor accounting, but we do as much as we can. Our government also supports farmers in ASF zones who are not positive but are affected anyway and are unable to sell their hogs.”

For Polish producers, the market value of culled hogs is determined using an average of three calculations: one created by a government-appointed estimator and two by third-party auditors. However, in 2018, nearly 20 per cent of ASF-affected Polish farmers did not receive compensation, due to biosecurity non-compliance. In 2019, that number actually doubled to 40 per cent of otherwise-eligible farmers.

Whole-herd culling in an ASF outbreak places considerable financial strain on any affected producer.

In the event ASF were to break in Canada, affected Canadian producers would have similarly justified concerns when it comes to compensation, along with an expectation that necessary biosecurity protocols are in place to stem the spread of disease.

In Alberta, a calculator is being developed to address costs related to destruction and disposal, as a way to effectively and efficiently allocate resources in an outbreak. For instance, if only one farm experiences an outbreak, that may be relatively easy to contain, assuming the disease is detected early enough. But if 10 farms are affected, a whole new set of considerations and prioritizations may be in order.

“The calculator is being designed so that it can be used universally by producers of all sizes and production types,” said Javier Bahamon, Quality Assurance and Production Manager, Alberta Pork. “We are developing this tool independently, to get ahead of any potential problems or delays if ASF arrives in Canada, which would be an incredibly stressful situation for many reasons.”

In Poland, the typical methods for performing euthanasia are electrocution or lethal injection, though the E.U.’s preference is the use of gas, which is being employed in Germany, currently. Hogs culled on-farm are transported to a central disposal plant, which incinerates most carcasses or uses burial sites in the case that an outbreak is too large to handle through the plant. The entire process from start to finish is overseen by government officials, with secondary support provided by UPEMI.

In Canada, the Pan-Canadian Action Plan on ASF is supported by national and provincial stakeholders and contains four main pillars, including ‘Preparedness Planning,’ under which a depopulation and disposal working group operates. As part of this collaborative effort, Alberta Pork has been providing ongoing training to producers. The training involves teaching the basics of incident response, along with how to use captive bolt guns to perform euthanasia. The guns are provided free-of-charge by Alberta Pork. Nearly 80 of the province’s 300 commercial farms have received training so far, with plans to increase that rate to cover as many premises as possible.

“Equipping producers to handle a culling situation is very important for us,” said Bahamon. “By providing them the tools and knowledge to prepare for this circumstance, we are trying to build the confidence that they are ready to react to a disease issue.”

Getting ahead of any potential outbreaks seems prudent, especially when considering what is driving the spread of ASF in Poland: wild boar. Canada, too, has a wild boar problem, which could encourage disease transmission here as well.

Poland’s love-hate wild boar saga

At the Dwór Mościbrody hotel restaurant, a former hunting lodge, this Eurasian wild boar trophy proudly adorns the wall. In Europe, these animals have been responsibly pursued as game for ages, but in North America, the practice adds to their number and spread, making the problem worse.

Wild boar hunting has long been an important sport tradition in Poland. The country’s abundant forest coverage creates the perfect habitat for boars to thrive, and carefully coordinated, controlled hunts are still an attractive activity in the country. Despite this, direct contact between Poland’s wild boar population and mostly small farms has proven responsible for the devastating spread of ASF there and in certain countries mostly to the south and east – but, since September 2020, in Germany as well.

In Canada, the growing problem of invasive, non-native wild boar at large has been plaguing farmers and landowners for some time, and it is getting worse. Wild boar were originally imported for game farming and fenced hunting purposes. Unfortunately, that plan backfired, and our country now has on its hands a truly complicated situation. Whether native or a pest, wild boar and their hybrids with domestic pigs can serve as an effective vector to spread disease.

Some prominent industry stakeholders believe that wild boar, in addition to international transport, could combine to bring ASF to North America. It may be only a matter of time, which is why swift action is needed. The goal of eradicating wild boar in North America is an attempt to protect not only livestock and crops but also to prevent widespread environmental degradation.

“Last year, our board of directors committed $400,000 to wild boar eradication in Alberta,” said Brent Moen, Chair, Alberta Pork. “We have seen just how destructive wild boar can be, and we want to do everything we can to support the total eradication of wild boar in Canada.”

The situation in Poland represents a need for ecological balance, given that the species is a part of the natural environment. However, industry stakeholders are wary of attempts by animal activists to prevent the implementation of measures used to safeguard farms against wild boar.

“Some people are very concerned about how we manage wild boar,” said Jolanta Ciechomska, Manager, Quality Assurance for Food Products (QAFP), UPEMI. “But we have to protect our farms. Before any uninfected farm sends pigs to a slaughterhouse from within an ASF control zone, our government’s veterinary inspectors must verify that the herd is healthy.”

Poland’s QAFP System, overseen by UPEMI, can be compared to the Canadian Quality Assurance (CQA) and Animal Care Assessment (ACA) programs, or the incoming Canadian Pork Excellence (CPE) program. On-farm, the QAFP System stipulates standards for feed rations and welfare, namely. However, unlike on-farm programs in Canada, Poland’s QAFP also covers poultry and animal transport, in addition to hogs.

Government veterinary inspectors play an important educational role, in addition to a regulatory one, for farmers and truckers. Veterinary inspectors ensure biocontainment measures, such as farm fencing, are adequate. E.U. regulations adopted in the last decade have aimed to bring all members states up-to-speed with modern, international expectations of meat production, which includes a critical food safety component. Not only government inspections, but regular audits by importing officials from countries like Germany and France, confirm that Polish pork exports are free of ASF.

On the side of a road near Gródek, biocontainment signage warns: ‘Attention! African Swine Fever Affected Area.’ Image © Mikołaj Grycuk.

CanSpotASF is the Canadian surveillance program that tests farms and packing plants on a risk-based level, rather than a regularly scheduled or randomly prescribed basis. No such program exists in Poland; however, the country’s veterinary officials must provide a daily report to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to indicate any new ASF cases. OIE is responsible for defining ASF infected zones globally. For Canada, zoning agreements with foreign partners are key to ASF preparedness before the situation potentially becomes desperate.

Since 2014, more than 500 on-farm cases of ASF have been discovered in Poland, with more than 100 occurring in the past year. While very alarming on its own, it is unsurprising, given that the country has detected tens of thousands of cases in its wild boar population over the same span of time. Even if industry facilities are not actively tested for ASF, carcasses of deceased wild boar are gathered to test for the virus, and the number climbs frequently.

Canada’s battle with wild boar is well underway, but critics of eradication or those who doubt the severity of the problem should seriously heed Poland’s example of how these creatures can wreak havoc on the entire sector. If the Canadian industry can avoid repeating this lesson, no price is too high, and no measure is too extreme.

Polish processors eye market expansion

The Mościbrody Meat Processing Plant performs all activities from slaughter to primary processing to further processing of packaged smoked sausage products sold by national distributors under the company’s own brand and under private grocery labels.

Just prior to ASF entering Poland, in 2013, the country sent more than 20,000 metric tonnes of pork to China, but that market has been closed since 2014. In contrast, Canada normally sends 10 times that amount to China annually. While Poland may not be on the same footing as Canada in that regard, it is widely acknowledged within the global pork industry that China holds the keys to a lot of market influences. And, for Canada, the hypothetical, long-term closure of the Chinese market in the event of ASF should be considered a red flag, especially following the situation experienced starting in mid-2019, when a dispute over veterinary certificates – largely fuelled by political tensions – caused the Canadian industry to hemorrhage money for several months.

For Polish processors, Asian marketplaces are much less important than those inside the E.U.

“Our preferred markets are Germany and Italy. We send primals and further-processed products there,” said Adrian Moskwiak, Director, Mościbrody Meat Processing Plant. “We have some advantages and disadvantages for our business, but we are working hard to expand our operations.”

Like Mościbrody, in Canada, most major pork packers have recently announced significant building projects, optimizations or acquisitions. Examples include HyLife’s construction of new barns, Maple Leaf Foods’ construction of new plants, Olymel’s restructuring of plant shifts and Sofina Foods’ purchase of foreign subsidiaries.

However, a major sticking point for any meatpacking company’s success, whether in Canada or Poland, is the availability of labour. As in Canada, Polish packers rely on a steady stream of reliable workers from abroad to fill their needs. Given political ties and labour market trends, many of Mościbrody’s workers arrive from neighbouring Ukraine and Georgia (a small country south of Russia).

In addition to the technical components of operating safely during COVID-19, packers are at the mercy of hog prices, which are set by the German market. In Canada, federally inspected packers rely on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop pricing formulas, using a combination of whole carcass and cut-out values.

“We consider the Polish market important too, of course,” said Moskwiak. “For Polish retailers, products from certain countries have better reputations than others. German products are often avoided, but products from the U.K. are favourable. This includes pork. We would like Polish people to buy Polish pork, but poor consumer education means that many people are unsure of where their meat comes from.”

‘Eating local’ may be relatively easy in Poland versus Canada, in some ways, but price and protein availability continue to wield the most power over consumers.

Pork is king on the plate in Poland

‘Goodvalley’ brand sausages are distributed in Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Denmark, aimed at sustainability-conscious consumers. Seen here at SPAR in Warsaw, an independently owned grocery store belonging to a Dutch chain. The packaging includes a QR code that conveys information related to traceability.

Poland loves pork. Not only in the sense of utility – as an accessible, affordable, nutritious and tasty protein – but also in the sense of national pride. Most Polish culinary delicacies involve pig products one way or the other, served up in the form of soups, stews, sausages and dumplings, with plenty of rye bread, potatoes, mushrooms and – yes, vodka – to cleanse the palate and keep dinner conversations interesting.

Unlike Poland, if ASF were to arrive in Canada, it is almost impossible to see how we could ‘eat out way out of the problem.’ With 70 per cent of all Canadian pigs and pork produced ending up on the export market, it would be a monstrous task to think that the Canadian public could put a dent in the stockpile of pork that would result if our foreign markets suddenly closed their doors.

Currently, Poland exports close to 30 per cent of its produced pork, about 80 per cent of which ends up in other E.U. states. Given domestic demand, Poland remains a net-importer of pork. This is a major advantage to overcoming the constraints of ASF zoning, which differs greatly from the situation in Canada.

Today, Canada has a population of just over 38 million, while Poland sits closely at just under 38 million. The average Canadian currently consumes less than 20 kilograms of pork per year, while the average Pole consumes about twice as much. While Poland already has ASF, the country’s strong pork-eating culture leaves the industry with some options when export market options are curtailed. It would be incredibly optimistic to believe Canada has the same cards in our hand to play. Poland has an additional supplementary benefit, which is funding from the E.U. to promote the consumption of European food products.

While supermarkets have become the dominant manner of selling pork to home consumers in Poland, some still frequent local butchers for high-end domestic and imported products. This store, Befsztyk, also accepts online orders, for delivery.

“While Canada’s pork export markets are certainly a hallmark of our success, we are also working with our provincial hog producer boards to increase the proliferation of Canadian pork at the domestic retail and foodservice levels,” said Jeremy Yim, Director, National Marketing, Canada Pork. “As time goes on, Canadians are becoming more interested in creative ways to use pork, which is driving Canadian end-users to provide new offerings and experiences for customers.”

Much work has been done by Canada Pork for the last three decades to support the competitiveness and sustainability of the Canadian pork value chain, including the promotion of domestic pork consumption. But despite these worthwhile efforts, it is almost certainly not enough to counter-balance any potential trade disruptions and domestic over-supply of pork if ASF were to break.

Essentially, while Canada and Poland are similar in size and can lay claim to having robust pig and pork sectors, one is poised to effectively ‘live with’ the ASF situation (Poland), while the other is seriously threatened by the thought of it (Canada). Increased globalization both helps the industry flourish financially and has the capacity to end it altogether.

Poland and Canada’s connected reality

Warsaw’s bustling financial district is the backdrop for the former ‘Palace of Culture and Science,’ commissioned by Joseph Stalin, in 1952, completed in 1955, when Poland was under Soviet influence. The country has changed dramatically since then.

The Polish and Canadian pig and pork sectors share some notable features but are also distinguished by some vast differences. All in all, both jurisdictions are working hard to gain much-deserved global recognition.

When it comes to managing swine disease, Poland’s ASF crisis may not appear nearly as bad as it is. Remarkably, the Polish industry has been able to quietly continue operating under what has basically become an endemic situation for ASF in that country. Surely, if Canada were to face the same conditions as Poland, a much different result would be the consequence.

For Canada, the industry has operated under a free market economy since the beginning, and Canadians have long been fortunate to enjoy certain rights and freedoms that Poles, at one time, could only dream about.

Nevertheless, both the Polish and Canadian industries have demonstrated their willingness to work with partners across the value chain, even if some hiccups cause occasional problems. For Poland and Canada, strong, ambitious pig and pork sectors have plenty of chance to thrive, and the coming years should spell room for growth.