Saving the piggies’ bacon from the draft welfare code

NAWAC’s draft welfare code for pigs, on which submissions close this week, is conservative, and not supported by the experience of free range pork producers, who speak openly to Pundit about their pigs

So, SAFE’s done it again.

Writing last year, here on Pundit, I noted SAFE’s impeccable timing— smashing through public consciousness, with the help of reformed character Mike King and TVNZ, in the year that the pig welfare code was due for a review.

Public submissions on the draft Animal Welfare (Pigs) Code of Welfare 2009 close this coming Friday, April 16. Time for another covert operation by SAFE activists, more prime-time debate on Close Up, and some “challenging” (as Mike Hosking dryly put it) footage.

The Pork Industry Board’s bland assertions of good faith and commitment to animal husbandry, whilst defending these practices, seem at odds with the trend of producers here and overseas to abandon ‘factory farming’ methods— methods we would not countenance for any other kind of animal, only the ones bred for our convenience, in the form of cheap food.

But they give some good, welfare-based reasons to continue the practices. I asked two free-range own-brand producers whether, when you open the cages, all hell really does break loose.

The draft code released for comment by the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) was delayed, after the Pork Industry Board threatened legal action. On matters around pig confinement—such as dry sow stalls and farrowing crates—key proposals include:

  • The use of dry sow stalls (which confine pregnant animals) would be limited, to four weeks post-mating, from December 31, 2012.
  • Their use is to be discontinued, from a date to be determined, with a proposed date of December 2017.
  • The use of farrowing crates (for birthing animals and their litters) would be limited, to four weeks post-farrowing, from the date of issue of the code. Phase out is an aspiration, but there is no clear path to it.
  • Although a best practice is identified of providing pigs with straw or deep bedding material, to facilitate their natural rooting habit, nothing in the code precludes continuing to fatten weaners in barren concrete pens.

NAWAC’s comment on farrowing crates, in particular, notes that their continued use is an interim compromise. The code is an advance on the road to better methods, but a small cautious risk-averse one. Its conservatism has heart-breaking real world impacts for individual animals. The dry sow stall status quo persists for another couple of years. Even from 2013, breeding sows, pregnant a couple of times each year, could spend several months in close confinement annually.

The code describes the animal welfare threats dry sow stalls and farrowing crates evolved to prevent. Pigs establish a hierarchy, and enforce it by “bullying, fighting and vices such as vulva, tail and ear biting”. These can result in significant injuries; subordinate pigs may suffer from lack of access to food and water. Aggression among sows can be severe in early pregnancy. Sows may be a hazard to their piglets, including accidentally crushing or eating them.

But the Animal Welfare Act requires the opportunity for animals to display normal patterns of behaviour— negative, as well as positive behaviour. The draft code also says pigs are social animals that prefer to live in groups. Sows have a strong urge to build a nest in the days leading up to farrowing, and only when she is farrowing and raising a litter will a sow choose to be isolated from others. Pigs of all ages seek out oral and nasal stimulation, such as by rooting and chewing. Many simple cruelty-free methods are suggested, for mitigating adverse behaviour.

Havoc Pork and Freedom Farms are free-range producers. I approached them separately for comment; their responses were all but identical.

For farrowing, “we give our mums a hut, a bale of straw, a trough with water, fence her off a piece of the paddock, feed her three times a day and let her get on with what she does naturally” wrote Havoc, and Freedom was much the same.

Neither experiences problems with aggression, Freedom noting that this is more likely to be a response to confinement, overcrowding, or when a sow feels that something is threatening her piglets.

Both acknowledged some risk of increased mortality due to ‘mum’ accidentally crushing a piglet, but it happens in the wild, is not a regular occurrence, and is far outweighed by the need for the sow to be able to create a nest and interact with her newborn, something a farrowing crate completely denies.

Whereas these producers might naturally be expected to have some interest in their niche market protection, as far as I could tell, their delight would be heartfelt, if the whole industry turned around. First and foremost, shining through their comments, was empathy with the character of the pigs; of which these animals have bucketloads:

“One thing that does happen from time to time [wrote my Havoc correspondent] is when gilts (first time mums) farrow they sometimes move in with their friend (who they have grown up with) this makes it a tight squeeze and Ian spends a lot of time taking the invader back to her own hut, they get the message after a while … Good stockmanship and watching your pigs at our farm is what we do, it is not just a numbers game.”

Ironically, one concern of the pork industry, in defending the status quo, is the risk of imported pork substitution. Yet for many years there was no labelling; and there still is no labelling of the imported product. Instead, the mark to look for is the NZ Pork brand Mike King promoted.

But the industry itself has resisted labelling of the kind we now see on eggs, which identifies different methods of production; about half the industry is now free range, but as SAFE has shown, the brand shields a mix of methods.

So NZ Pork is trumpeted as better than imported, whilst at the same time defending the same methods by some producers, on the grounds that we cannot give imports a price-point advantage.

It's also worth noting that, according to NAWAC, “MAF’s draft economic analysis [that accompanies the welfare code] indicates that substantial import substitution is unlikely”.

Submissions on the draft code close this Friday April 16, 2010 and can be addressed to Please watch the TVNZ footage, if you missed it (and can bear it), and consider making a brief submission.