Animal welfare is a big issue in Europe, and the spotlight is likely to intensify as consumers get increasingly focused on how their food is produced. The European Union is currently spending 1.3 million euros (U.S. $1.8 million) on a three-year project called “Econ Welfare.”
Its aim is to illustrate the impact on the animal, the production chain and society of “upgrading animal-welfare standards.” Some farmers might argue that improving welfare is just another cost and that it is not cost-effective. However, the opposing view is that increasing space allowances for hogs, for example, results in better growth rates and improved profitability.
There are many well-funded organizations, most with a vegetarian agenda, that are checking farmers’ practices. such as the vocal and articulate Compassion in World Farming. Some farmers have a confrontational attitude to such groups, but they are not going away; rather they’re getting stronger.
CIWF opposes farrowing crates, claiming they are cruel to the sow, despite the fact that U.K. sows are loose-housed through gestation and are only confined for four weeks in the reproductive cycle. I have outlined to a CIWF representative that crates protect the piglets and asked what alternatives CIWF proposes to provide equal livability as crates. All I got was bluster about “crates are cruel for the sow…”
Another of their tactics is horrific videos on certain websites depicting cruelty to U.K. hogs. Thanks to these, an influential and conservative U.K. women’s group (the Women’s Institute) intends to focus on “factory farming” this year. WI views a shed containing 10 hogs as a “factory farm.” There is real concern that perfectly acceptable farming projects could be halted due to this misinformed group. Fortunately, the U.K.’s National Farmers Union president has been asked to speak at a WI meeting to rationally explain agricultural practices and add perspective.
In Denmark, farmers rely on pig and dairy exports, but the welfare lobby is intense. Parliament recently passed a raft of environmental legislation, but the Danish farmers union was never consulted. At the end of 2010, a major Danish newspaper did some digging regarding the hyperprolific sows that the Danes are so proud of for having big litters of small piglets. This inevitably leads to quite high mortality, which when expressed as a percentage doesn’t look bad, but in absolute numbers tells a different story. Headlines such as “25,000 Piglets Die Every Day” didn’t favor the Danish pig industry. These same welfarists want farrowing stalls removed even though piglet mortality will rise.
Playing the Welfare Card
The United Kingdom has a small pig industry relative to the rest of Europe, and it has recently played the welfare card to differentiate British pigmeat. British pigs have not been castrated for many years, and gestation sows have been loose-housed since 1999, many on straw-bedded systems. In turn, producers have been able to command a 20-pence-per-kg (U.S. 33 cents) price differential over “low welfare” European pork. U.K. product is being uniquely labeled and promoted through roadside and truck-mounted advertisements. (See photo.)
The partial stall ban will begin in 2013 for the rest of Europe, and U.K. producers are worried about their price premium eroding. They are considering other ways to differentiate U.K. product in terms of welfare. Some British producers, especially those who borrowed heavily to finance loose-housing systems are worried the European Union might “move the goalposts” and loosen the 2013 deadline, given that French and Spanish producers claim they can’t afford to replace their confinement systems. Still, the E.U. welfare commissioner Andrea Gavinelli stated at the Euro/Chinese pig summit held in Hanover, Germany, last November that was not an option.
The British Pig Executive, in conjunction with the University of Bristol, has started a project to establish benchmarks for pig welfare that will work across all production systems. The idea is to develop a science-based evaluation that measures pig welfare or “Real Welfare.” This will be over and above the current welfare inputs such as stocking density, which are already part of the U.K. criteria. Sows will be assessed for body condition, and shoulder and vulva lesions. In university pilot trials, lameness, tail lesions, hospitalization and enrichment use were identified as indicators of finishing pigs’ well-being. These will be the base for veterinarians and producers to determine which aspects of the pigs’ environment or management could be changed to improve welfare and productivity.
The BPEX project will involve 20 veterinarians making assessments on 180 commercial pig farms. In all, 360 farm visits will gather the required information on animal well-being to build an anonymous data set and identify values to benchmark. The assessments will look at finishing pigs bedded on straw and without, as well as indoor and outdoor sow systems. According to Mike Varley, BPEX research and development director, “the project will provide an objective means of demonstrating that producers are good welfarists instead of being judged on operation type or size, or the perception that one production system is better than another. Also, it will provide a valuable tool for management decisions.”
Adrian Cox, a veterinarian involved in the Real Welfare assessments, observed that problems tend to be addressed more quickly, such as tail biting. That’s actually another hot issue, as some welfare groups and retailers object to tail docking, claiming it’s a mutilation and should be banned. U.K. producers have established the National Pig Association Tails Working Group, comprised of specialist veterinarians, academics, producers and processors. The group is collecting a body of information and will determine best practices to reduce tail docking, without increasing tail biting. U.K. law forbids routine tail docking, but when tail biting is or has been a problem, the farm’s veterinarian can give permission. Providing toys and manipulative materials gives pigs something to root, which reduces the likelihood of tail biting. The causes of tail biting remain unknown despite much research worldwide, and until the cause is determined, tail docking is still a practical way of minimizing this vice.
So, the welfare debate will run on — even the Chinese are beginning to look at electronic sow feeders and group gestation-sow housing.