Pig welfare overlooked in parts of EU
Earlier this summer a pig farm in Congleton, Cheshire, had its RSPCA Freedom Food approval rescinded after shocking video footage emerged of the pigs' living conditions on the farm in question.
Video footage taken on hidden cameras by investigators from the Hillside Animal Sanctuary showed injured pigs housed on Wood Common Farm dragging themselves along the floor of indoor pig units, covered in their own filth and struggling to stand up in dark, dank conditions.
While the farmer in question tried to defend the conditions, the graphic images elicited a scathing attack from members of the great British public and animal welfare groups.
In the United Kingdom, such examples are thankfully few and far between but unfortunately poor pig welfare standards are nothing new when we examine the pig industry on a wider European context.
Within mainland Europe millions of pigs are being kept in what have been described by the National Pig Association as "medieval" conditions, as scores of European nations continue to flout the ban on sow stall use.
Sow stalls are short, narrow metal cages that restrict the movement of a pregnant pig, traditionally used to restrict animal movements throughout a gestation period of three months, three weeks and three days. During this time, the animal can only move a few steps forward or back; unable to turn round and do any of the things that normal, active pigs do.
For a highly sociable and inquisitive creature, this is a distressing system and leads to many animals chewing the metal bars that surround them, blunting their teeth and causing gums to bleed.
The sows are often contained on top of slatted floors with no bedding material and while this is obviously uncomfortable (especially as when confined in such a manner, a pig tendency is to spend most of its time lying down) it also means that the animal has nothing to root through, depriving the pig in question the chance to exercise its primary natural instinct.
In the UK, sow stalls have been banned since 1999 and while this was fantastic news for the welfare of our nation's pigs, it immediately put UK pig farmers on a back foot within the European pig market.
The sow stall ban led to an increase in costs of production to UK farmers, with thousands of pounds having to be spent my many farmers to update existing pig housing to conform to new legislation. This allowed European produced pig products – from animals kept in sow stalls – to enter the UK market at comparatively lower costs, undermining the competitiveness of domestic producers, with damaging consequences.
When EU legislation was finally put in place to enforce a sow stall ban across all EU member states from January 2013 – some 14 years after the UK – it was hoped that this would not only help level the playing field within the European pig market but most importantly, improve the welfare of the wider European pig population.
However, as it currently stands, the EU Commission still has infringement proceedings against nine EU member states that have failed to prove compliance with this new law and as such are still rearing pigs in poor conditions, utilising sow stalls.
These nations represent some of the largest pig producers in Europe (including France, Poland and Italy), and at the start of 2013 the National Pig Association feared that in the region of 40,000 animals an hour were being delivered to processing plants from these non-compliant farms, ready for human consumption.
The fact of the matter is that some of the UK's largest pig farming European neighbours are still rearing pigs in dismal conditions, even though the practices have been banned; what's more, the European Commission seems inept in forcing compliance.
Thankfully, incidents such as those reported by the Hillside Animal Sanctuary are few and far between in the UK, but consumers must be aware that pig welfare is something that is not being taken seriously in many EU member states.
As a nation that imports 60 per cent of its pork products, it is of vital importance that welfare conscious shoppers – so outraged by the findings on Wood Common Farm – are aware of exactly where their food is sourced. If they are not, buyers could unwittingly find themselves supporting the illegal actions of some European pig farmers.