Let’s talk about pork…

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

An EU-funded campaign has been launched in France, Spain and Portugal to ‘demystify’ the production of pork. Joanna Swabe argues that if we’re going to ‘talk about pork’, let’s talk about routine violations of animal welfare legislation and eating less of it. [Compassion in World Farming Poland (CIWF Poland)]

An EU-funded campaign has been launched in France, Spain and Portugal to ‘demystify’ the production of pork. Joanna Swabe argues that if we’re going to ‘talk about pork’, let’s talk about routine violations of animal welfare legislation and eating less of it.

Dr Joanna Swabe is senior director of public affairs for Humane Society International/Europe

“Let’s talk about pork” is the slogan heralding the new meat promotion campaign launched in Spain, France and Portugal to encourage young people to consume more home-grown pigmeat.

Given that the EU has outrageously co-funded this promotional campaign to the tune of around €7.5 million, it would be remiss not to take up this invitation.

So, let us indeed talk about pork…

Pig business is big business. Nearly half of the meat produced in the EU comes from pigs; around 13% thereof is destined for export. Over 22.7 tonnes of pigmeat was produced last year, over half of which in Germany (23%), Spain (20%) and France (10%). This translates into 245,024,000 sentient beings who have been slaughtered for food. The majority of these animals will have been raised in intensive production systems.

It is true to say that pigs in the EU perhaps enjoy some of the highest welfare standards in the world. At least they do on paper. The ‘Let’s talk about pork” campaign’s claim that conditions of production have “scrupulous respect for the highest standards of animal welfare” is tantamount to humane washing.

All industrial produced pork comes from animals confined indoors, in concrete, barren, overcrowded warehouses. Yes, all pigs in the EU are kept in group housing. However, they may still be legally confined to individual stalls for a 28-day period at the beginning of pregnancy and a week before the expected birth of the piglets. HSI urges the revision of the legislation to remove this exemption to ensure that sows are kept in group housing throughout the entire gestation period and farrowing.

There are also significant welfare problems relating to substandard housing conditions, primarily due to a lack of effective enrichment materials. Routine tail-docking is also a major issue. Let’s talk about that.

To this day, all Member States – with the exception of Finland and Sweden – continue to allow pig farmers to carry on with the cruel practice of routine tail-docking, which is banned by the Pigs Directive. NGO investigations, the European Court of Auditors and the Commission’s own audits have found that nearly all pigs on commercial pig farms are still being routinely tail-docked, a result that is largely attributable to a widespread failure by operators to provide effective enrichment materials.

Young pigs are curious, active, social animals and without an interesting, engaging environment, they have no outlet for their natural investigatory rooting and chewing behaviour. Thus, they turn to the only available option—their pen mates. Environmental enrichment, such as straw, provides a more suitable outlet and would prevent the need for tail docking, yet producers routinely flout the intent of the Directive by failing to provide an effective level of enrichment.

So, when we talk about pork, let’s talk about the 99% of pigs in France and 98.5% in Spain who suffer routine tail-docking, according to Commission audits. Portugal does far better at 65%, but the figure should be zero. These governments’ failures to take decisive action to enforce the Pigs Directive and make operators comply with the provisions concerning routine tail-docking and environmental enrichment makes a mockery of the legislation.

While the funding of this promotional campaign was clearly approved in 2019 under the previous mandate, its very existence flies in the face of the Von der Leyen Commission’s ambitions of achieving the European Green Deal.

Indeed, the recently adopted EU Farm to Fork Strategy explicitly acknowledges that the transition to a more sustainable food system will not happen without a shift in people’s diets. It accepts that “moving to a more plant-based diet with less red and processed meat and with more fruits and vegetables will reduce not only risks of life-threatening diseases, but also the environmental impact of the food system”.

Having seen the widely-circulated, leaked draft of the Strategy, one can only imagine the tensions and fights within the Commission’s hierarchy between the progressive environmentalists and the agricultural apologists seeking to cling on to the status quo.

The leaked version included a strong commitment to cease “stimulating the production or consumption of meat”. Evidently the agricultural lobby was ceded to and this commitment was significantly watered down. The final version instead pledges a review of the promotion programme for agricultural products with a focus on how the “most sustainable, carbon-efficient methods of livestock production” could be supported by the EU.

Given that the vast majority of pork in the EU is produced in intensive farming systems, it is a travesty that several millions of Union funds have been earmarked to promote it. While meat promotion subsidies should have been scrapped altogether, it is vital that, in the future, the focus is strictly delineated to ensure that no EU funds are used for the promotion of animal products derived from intensive animal production systems.

Campaigns, such as ‘Let’s talk about pork’, should be relegated to the annals of EU history. If young people are consuming less pork, then perhaps it is because they have grasped the fact that we should be eating less meat. They understand the impact of meat production on our environment, climate change and animal welfare. They don’t need it shoved down their throats.

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