Pork producers in Europe have dealt with well-organized and vocal animal-rights groups longer and more intensely than U.S. producers. Some of that is due to the nature of the United States being a significantly larger and more diverse country than any individual European nation. While the animal-rights movement sprouted here in the 1970s, there have been periodic waves of activity and traction — the most recent being gestation-sow stalls.

Of course, the gestation-stall issue is not the first and it won’t be the last challenge that you face from animal activist groups, from which the Humane Society of the United States has surfaced as the most influential. Drawing from the European activists’ playbook, HSUS is implementing some of the same pressures here that have worked in Europe.

“(Food) retailers are pressured by the NGOs,” was a message that surfaced repeatedly during a tour of pork production in the Netherlands. (See “A Snapshot of the Future?” in August PORK.) NGOs are non-governmental organizations, which the Dutch also call pressure groups.  Increasingly, “if I don’t get an NGO label or endorsement, I can’t get my product in the market,” relays Anne-Marie van Bussel, research development director at the Pig Innovation Center, Sterksel, Holland, speaking on producers’ behalf.

While most Dutch pig farmers still raise meat for a commodity market, a labeling system driven by the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals is a small but growing sector, van Bussel points out. In fact, Ahold, one of the two major supermarket chains in the Netherlands, no longer sells non-labeled product.

The labeling system is called Better Leven, which means “Better Life.” It grades production practices with emphasis on “humane” animal standards. It was developed by SPA with input and cooperation from the ZLTO farmers’ union and the research sector. The program was introduced in 2007, first focusing on poultry. It encompassed 500,000 farm animals that year; by 2011 the animal numbers grew to 12 million. “Retailers have now announced they want all farm animals to carry our label by 2020,” says Bert van den Berg, senior policy officer for SPA.

The Better Leven labels rate on-farm animal rearing on a three-star system. For pigs, a one-star label requires more pen space, added enrichments and no castration. To receive two stars, growing pigs must have free-range access. Currently no pork products carry the two-star label. Products from organic systems receive the three-star label, which also ensures sows with piglets have access to the outdoors. 

  van Bussel estimates that 5,000 one-star pigs are slaughtered weekly, with an equal level for the three-star product. “But it’s growing, and the NGOs are directing it,” she adds.  

“Industry and retailers for many years were reactive. Pressure groups changed the game,” van den Berg says. “Today they are more proactive.”

In fact, Dutch retailers (and NGOs) are not only driving the animal well-being production aspect today, but in mid-June retailers announced that they will now focus on sustainability requirements and labels for pigs and poultry production. Part of the drive was to get a handle on all the various labels and pricing expectations currently in the marketplace. “We want an integrated program,” relates Marc Jansen, director with CBL, which represents food retailers. Another motivator was for retailers to begin the process before the government or activists forced it upon them.

Retailers have not yet thoroughly defined what “sustainable” pork production is beyond that it “has to be sustainable for the animal, the environment and human beings,” but Dutch retailers have united in setting 2020 as the deadline to provide that product. “I am convinced it will happen faster,” Jansen says.

The retailers say they will work with NGOs, scientists and the producer/industry sector to more thoroughly define “sustainable” production within the next year. “It will involve the footprint of pig production, inputs and outputs, life-cycle analysis,” predicts Gerard Albers, director of Hendrix Genetics, which includes Hypor on the swine side. “Genomics will help make progress in this effort,” as he points to genetics companies adding such things as reductions in greenhouse gas to their research list.  

Jansen reports that the sustainability program will include third-party certification, and consumers will need to help absorb the costs. “Consumers are willing to pay 20 percent more for a more sustainable product,” he adds. “We have to convince consumers that they have to pay more for traits that are important to them,” and producers need to trust that the price premium will also trickle down to the farm.

“They (retailers) did this as a group to eliminate the competitive advantage that could be tied to it,” says Annechien ten Have-Mellema, a pork producer and chairman of the pig-farming section of LTO Nederland. “These steps are market driven. It gives the farmer a position to get paid for the product,” versus the legislative route.

These sorts of sustainability connections are part of the “societal license to produce long term,” says Hanneke Feitsma, DVM, research director with ToPigs genetics. “Sustainability is where the economics, society and environment are in balance and systems designed for animal production meet these criteria.”

She adds that transparency needs to be part of future production and sustainability — “We need to let customers see; we believe this approach is future friendly.”


The Next Pig Issue

 No castration, no tail docking, no needle-teeth clipping — often called mutilations — are the next issues facing European and U.S. pork producers. As Matthew Prescott, food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States has told PORK, mutilations are on HSUS’ priority list too.

The most immediate of those is castration. “It’s a high priority; it’s very much in the spotlight of the NGOs,” says  Annechien ten Have-Mellema, a pork producer from northern Holland.

In fact, this spring, Burger King and McDonald’s began running ads pointing out that they serve only pork from non-castrated pigs. A 2018 deadline is set for prohibiting castration.

The issue is pain. “In 2000, we started talking about using anesthetic to castrate pigs,” Have-Mellema says, “and retailers paid for it.”  But that has fallen out of favor, partly because it’s expensive and labor intensive. The other part is “you’re still castrating the animal. The point is to stop castration, which is a painful process even after the anesthesia. It was a temporary fix,” she adds.

Regarding immunocastration, Have-Mellema says it’s not getting traction in Holland. “You still have to grab the pig and inject it two times. When you don’t castrate, you’re doing nothing. The best is to do nothing. It’s better for the farmer and the pig.” She estimates a 5- to 7-euro-per-pig savings not to castrate due to such things as increased efficiency and reduced labor.

The disadvantage of not castrating is the prospect of boar taint in the meat, which runs about 4 percent. “It’s an issue, but less than we expected,” Have-Mellema notes. Granted, Dutch producers market hogs much lighter than the 250- to 300-pound sale weight in the United States. “We’ve moved from 85 kilograms (187 pounds) to 92 kilograms (202 pounds),” she adds.

Hanneke Feitsma, DVM, research director with ToPigs genetics, says they are finding some wiggle room up to 150 kilograms. Research is looking into options to reduce boar taint, including feeding measures, age, genetics and management practices. ToPigs is using a genetic marker for reduced boar taint in its selection process for a specific boar line. “It reduces the boar taint by about 40 percent,” she adds.

To prevent product with boar taint from reaching consumers, Dutch processors have trained screeners to smell-test every carcass. This is done by touching a heated rod to a carcass sample. Product that doesn’t pass the test goes into sausage. Dutch producers get feedback on boar taint from packers and industry is working to validate and certify the smelling process, so it’s a more standard reference point.

Presently, 40 percent of Holland’s pigs are not castrated, and that product remains in the country. The remaining 60 percent is exported, much of it to Germany, and they are not keen on the idea of receiving pork from intact boars. Some E.U. countries are warming up to the idea. “In a few years’ time, we’re hoping this changes,” Have-Mellema says, “as we cannot go to 100 percent non-castration unless other countries accept our product.”

Other issues that Dutch producers face include providing animals with access to daylight and allowing the animal to express natural behavior, Feitsma notes.