Every year around 1.4 billion pigs are slaughtered for meatworldwide, of which more than half have been reared by industrial, intensive methods.
These figures equate to the combined human populations of the USA, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Romania, Spain, Luxembourg, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Hong Kong, Israel, North Korea, Cyprus, Nepal, Switzerland, Portugal, Kuwait, Cuba, Croatia, Latvia, Costa Rica, Cambodia, Czech Republic, Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Norway, Greece, New Zealand, Morocco, Iraq, Kenya, Afghanistan, Denmark, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Slovenia, Rwanda and Chile.
Around 9.5 million pigs were slaughtered in the UK in 2010, 70% of which were intensively reared.
Female pigs (sows) are first inseminated when they are 6-8 months old, mostly artificially. A sow’s pregnancy lasts about 16 weeks and she usually has 10 to 12 piglets per litter. She would normally wean her young at 12 to 14 weeks; however, in intensive farming her piglets are forcibly weaned much earlier, at 3 to 4 weeks. One week after weaning, she will be inseminated again. After giving birth to between 4 and 7 litters, exhausted by a life of constant pregnancies, she is slaughtered, typically aged between 3 and 5 years, and her carcass is used for low-quality meat products such as sausages and pork pies. Her natural lifespan would have been between 10 and 15 years.
Most sows factory-farmed in the EU are confined to a sow stall during pregnancy – which is most of her adult life. This is a metal crate or cage barely bigger than the pig, usually with a bare slatted floor for faeces and urine to drop through, so narrow that she cannot turn round or change position, and may only stand up or lie down. The stall prevents her from foraging or rooting, or making any choices or movements. It is convenient for the farmer, who in this way can attend to her bodily functions more efficiently and therefore, more profitably.
Pigs are naturally inquisitive, strong, nimble and intelligent creatures, and sows held in such stalls often show signs of severe psychological distress and frustration, biting the bars of their cages and exhibiting behaviour similar to clinical depression.Lamed by weakened bones and muscles, they also often experience abrasion injuries, cardiovascular problems, digestive and urinary tract problems.
While sow stalls are already illegal in the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland, it is still the most common system for housing sows during pregnancy in the rest of the EU, where much UK pig meat is imported from. Sow stalls are set to be banned across Europe from 2013 onwards.However, even after this legislation is implemented farmers in the UK will still be allowed to use these inhumane stalls during the show’s first four weeks of pregnancy which, according to a scientific report by the EFSA, is damaging for their health and welfare.
Piglets Behind Bars
Sows due to give birth are moved to special cages called farrowing crates, still used in the UK. These are like sow stalls, but with a small extra area to the side for the piglets, separated by bars from the mother. Thus the sow is barred from her offspring and cannot build a nest for them or care for them in her own way. Meanwhile the close physical restraint of the farrowing crate is liable to give her muscle weakness, lameness and inflammatory swellings of the joints. She is kept in the crate until her piglets are taken away at 3 to 4 weeks of age.
The extent to which farrowing crates prevent the sow from crushing her young remains controversial. Industry figures suggest that mortality rates are higher without the crated system although recent research undertaken on Swiss farms has found that piglet mortalities in farms using loose farrowing systems were no higher than those in farms that used crates.
Castrated, Tailing Docking and Teeth Clipping
At 3 to 4 weeks, most young, intensively reared pigs are put into overcrowded, poorly lit pens or metal cages without any bedding, where boredom and frustration causes aggressive behaviour between pigs. To prevent this, very young pigs have their teeth clipped and tails cut off, all without anaesthetic. Tail docking is banned in the EU unless there is a particular justification for it. However,a 2008 report by the European Food Safety Authority found that 75-80 per cent of British pigs are still tail docked, a fact that Defra’s Animal Welfare and Veterinary Division stated ‘could be construed as a reflection of the inappropriate management systems currently in place in the pig industry’.
Castration is performed on male pigs to prevent boar taint in the meat and reduce problems associated with mounting/riding behaviour and aggression when male pigs get older. In addition, teeth clipping is carried out to prevent the piglets from damaging the sow when she is suckling them and to prevent them injuring each other when young. These practices are usually carried out without anaesthetic. Teeth clipping and tail docking are practised in the UK, but piglets are generally not castrated. They are usually slaughtered after 4 to 7 months.
Current EU legislation (Council Directive 2008/120/EC) requires that:
- Pigs are provided with enrichment materials to enable proper investigation and manipulation activities
- Routine tail docking is prohibited
- That pregnant sows are provided with bulky or high-fibre food (not just high-energy food) to prevent hunger
Reports by the Food and Veterinary Office show a widespread failure of the pig industry to comply with any of the provisions of the Directive, with failure by member states to enforce the Directive also prevalent.
These reports appear to show that the intensive pig farming industry is unable or unwilling to regulate itself in terms of ensuring animal welfare, which does not bode well for the future ban on sow stalls.
In March and April 2008 Animal Aid conducted an investigation into ten randomly selected intensive pig farms in the UK.The report shows that pigs are consistently kept in cramped, filthy conditions, often with no natural bedding and very little, or unsuitable, environmental enrichment.
Dustbins were found full of empty medication bottles for diseases with symptoms which include diarrhoea, respiratory problems, intestinal lesions and more. Often these diseases are related to poor living conditions and the weaning of piglets from their mothers too early, before their digestive systems have properly developed to ingest solid food. Early weaning also means that litters are mixed together before piglets are strong enough to deal with the stress of competing for dominance. All of these factors, along with poorer living conditions, contribute to make the piglets vulnerable to disease, and farmers more dependent on antibiotics to treat the diseases.
Despite the fact that Animal Aid’s report attracted considerable media coverage and some changes were made in individual cases, a second investigation conducted by the charity at seven farms owned and/or run by BPEX members found much of the same practices.
A Better Life for Pigs
Under the British Soil Association’s organic standards, the use of farrowing crates and sow stalls in pig production is prohibited. To classify as organically reared, pigs must be able to range free, with space to move about, explore and wallow in mud, and they must not be ringed through the nose, a mutilation often performed to prevent them from rooting up the earth (for more information on organic standards see the ‘Labelling’ section of the website).
“I went into free range simply because it was the only thing I could afford to do, as far as profitability is concerned, the market is moving towards us, simply because more and more people want to see the pigs outside, they want to see the way that they are produced, and that they are looked after better.’ Free range pig farmer, UK.
“Across the world deep bedded systems […] are becoming more popular because they can be fifty per cent cheaper to set up than intensive systems. Existing farm buildings can easily be adapted to accommodate deep bedding pigs. They suit traditional production, supporting rural livelihoods. Deep bedding systems are sustainable, producing less ammonia than slurry based systems. They also encourage pigs to forage and improve their welfare.”
- Quoted in http://www.animalaid.org.uk/images/pdf/Pigreport.pdf
- Undercover at Smithfield Foods (Humane Society, 2010)
- Pig farming in the EU (CIWF, 2009)
- Pig welfare (CIWF, 2008)
Towards shared priorities for the future
- Animals and people first (WSPA, 2005)
- Beyond cruelty. Beyond reason. (WSPA, 2005)
Long distance transport and welfare of farm animals