As cruel industrial pig farming persists in the EU, one million citizens demand change

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A movement of European citizens and NGOs demands improvement in pig welfare. [Compassion in World Farming Poland (CIWF Poland)]

Under the European Commission’s indulgent eye, the race to the bottom in the EU’s pig industry pushes profits to the edge at the cost of pig welfare, against law and public opinion. But a movement of citizens and NGOs is gaining momentum to demand change in the industry’s methods.

This op-ed is co-signed by Reineke Hameleers, director at Eurogroup for Animals, and several MEPs, members of the pig welfare working group in the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals, namely Jeppe Kofod (S&D, Chair), Fredrick Federley (ALDE, Vice-Chair), Jytte Guteland (S&D), Anja Hazekamp (GUE/NGL), Fabio Massimo Castaldo (EFDD) and Keith Taylor (Greens/EFA).

With the pan-European campaign ‘EndPigPain’, Eurogroup for Animals and its 64 member organisations exposed the squalid living conditions and illegal handling practices faced by pigs throughout Europe.

‘EndPigPain’, endorsed by more than a million citizens, calls on national Agricultural Ministers and the European Commission to stop all pig mutilations while ensuring enforcement of the EU Pigs Directive.

Painful husbandry procedures such as castration and tail docking – while inherent in today’s pig farming – are completely unnecessary. Technically and economically feasible alternatives to eventually lead to pain-free pig farming already exist and must now be mainstreamed.

Thus, European citizens demand change. At the very least, change will have to start with enforcement of current European legislation on pig welfare. We are faced with the unprecedented situation whereby, with the exceptions of Finland and Sweden, EU member states are disregarding minimum legal standards for the protection of pigs.

According to recent audits carried out by the European Commission, in several major pig producing member states, this roughly translates in over 90% of pigs routinely mutilated (tail docked).

This happens because their living conditions are so squalid and barren that intact curly tails – which pigs wag or “swish” just like dogs – become the only available stimulus, and are therefore chewed on by other pigs. Hence, tails are cut off to prevent problems.

Farmers should provide pigs with alternative stimuli, namely appropriate substrates that pigs can explore with their snouts, as in nature these animals spend most of their active time rooting in the soil.

But providing straw or other chewable materials to keep pigs occupied has proven more difficult than the legislator thought, and therefore pigs are given metal chains, wooden blocks, or other “toys” to entertain themselves. Which clearly neither work nor satisfy EU legal requirements.

So far the approach of the European Commission with regards to the widespread lack of enforcement of the Pig Directive has been soft, consisting of a tri-annual action plan. We think it’s high time for infringement proceedings, and the success of End Pig Pain adds weight to our requests. This crisis is not only about the basic welfare of animals but also about the credibility of EU law.

The European Union rears about 250 million pigs, predominantly in intensive conditions. Breeding sows spend almost half of their productive lives in individual confinement, namely during part of gestation, farrowing and lactation, and this for each reproductive cycle, non-stop.

They now produce so many piglets per litter that piglet mortality has reached unprecedented and ethically disputable levels (with up to 35% of piglets dying before weaning). Sow mortality is also increasing due to excessive selection for high productivity.

Surviving piglets are routinely mutilated: apart from tail docking, in most EU countries male piglets are still castrated without or with inadequate pain relief. They are then prematurely separated from their mothers so that they suffer from stress and digestive problems that compromise their health and welfare, and require the use of antibiotics.

Fattening pigs live in sheds among noxious gases, with no access to enrichments, soft bedding, or outdoor access, until ready for slaughter.

One common argument is that this industrialised production model is the one that can guarantee animal health, food security, cheap food for consumers and competitive exports on a global market.

However, the ongoing African Swine Fever outbreaks show that this whole industrial pig farming system is very vulnerable, especially if even basic biosecurity measures are not respected, as it incredibly appears to be the case in Europe.

High concentrations of farms rearing hundreds or thousands of pigs in close proximity, as is the case in some areas of Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, are like bombs ready to explode when diseases such as this one, appear on the horizon.

The economic consequences are already hitting hard, as EU export markets suspend imports of pig meat from affected regions. But the highest price will once again be paid by the animals, who are already being killed by the thousands to prevent the spread of the disease, and by wild boars, loudly (and unduly) accused of being the sole responsible for spreading the disease.

All this warrants a fundamental and serious reflection on whether this is the direction in which we want to go for the future. Is this really our way of acknowledging animal sentience? As our scientific knowledge progresses, ethical standards about the way in which we rear animals for food will continue to evolve.

It is urgent that politicians, decision makers, and farmers heed the demands of civil society, adapting policies to updated scientific evidence and considering the economic opportunities that a reassessment and advancement in our treatment of farmed animals can offer.

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