Animal welfare in EU’s pork sector: What’s wrong?

Animal welfare in EU’s pork sector: What’s wrong?

EU has put into place legislation to ensure that animal welfare conditions are respected in its agricultural policy but the breaches of its regulations in the pig meat sector are still largely overlooked and has been allowed to continue for years according to recent reports.

In a recent op-ed in The Brussels Times, a Swedish veterinarian described the inside of a pig slaughterhouse where three thousand pigs were stunned with carbon dioxide and slaughtered every day.

She found it impossible to continue working in a system where she was expected to assure to the outside world that everything was all right between the slaughterhouse walls and that EU legislation against causing pain, distress and suffering to the pigs was applied. It was not.

In another op-ed, animal welfare activists drew the attention to the living standards in factory farms where sows spend half their lives in cages. Piglets are routinely mutilated with castration, tail docking, and tooth clipping, despite EU legislation on minimum standards for the protection of pigs in the last thirty years.

Some facts about the pig meat sector

According to a briefing paper by the European Parliamentary Research Service (September 2020), the 150 million pigs reared across the EU represent the largest livestock category before that of bovines. The EU pig meat sector alone accounts for nearly half of total EU meat production. Germany, Spain and France contribute more than half of the total amount of pig meat produced in the EU.

The vast majority of pigs in the EU are bred, kept and slaughtered for meat within an intensive system that gives rise to numerous issues linked in particular to animal welfare, pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In general, only 3 % of the pig herd in the EU is kept in backyard farms, and this share is even lower in most major producing member states. Overall, over 75 % of EU pigs are in large commercial holdings.

Despite its fast growth in recent decades, EU organic animal production remains small in comparison to total EU animal production. The organic pig farming sector represents less than 1 % of all pig farming in the EU.

Having the largest pig herd in the EU, Spain is today the EU’s second largest pig producer after Germany. More than three quarters of the EU’s pigs are being reared in eight EU member states: Spain Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, and Belgium.

The EU is currently the world’s top exporter of pig meat products and its exports have been boosted by the fall in production in Asia. The pig meat sector constitutes 8.5 % of the total EU-27 agricultural output, which is the highest share compared to other meat sectors. Within the total EU meat output, the pig meat sector has a share of 35 %.

In 2020, its top export destinations are China, the UK, Japan and Korea. Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, France and Ireland are the member states that ship pig meat to China.

Has the European Commission launched any infringement procedures against member states for violating the relevant EU directives/regulations on animal protection as regards the breeding and slaughter of pigs? 

A source in the Commission confirmed to The Brussels Times that there are no opened infringement procedures related to the welfare of pigs at farms or at slaughter. Infringement procedures are used at the last resort when all other activities for reaching compliance have been exhausted

Commission experts perform regular audits in the member states and are supposed to take actions to improve compliance.

However, the Commission audits carried out in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and Denmark between 2016 and 2018 indicate that 95 % to 100 % of pigs are still being tail docked. Only a couple member states are respecting the ban (Sweden and Finland), according to the Parliament’s report.

The Commission says that it is aware of the problems related to the implementation of the Pigs Directive and makes efforts at both political and technical level towards the enforcement of the legal requirements, such as the prohibition of routine tail docking.

Member states have been asked to revise their action plans regarding the prevention of routine tail docking and provide evidence that they are in a position to monitor closely the situation and accelerate compliance with legal requirements.

Concerning the confinement of sows, the Commission has responded positively to the European Citizens Initiative ‘End the cage age’.

In the framework of the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission plans to submit legislative proposals by the end of 2023, to revise the animal welfare legislation, including on the welfare of pigs. The Commission will consider the issue of mutilations as well as the ban of cages for sows, in its future proposal on the welfare of pigs.

When will stunning of pigs by carbon dioxide be finally banned?

Concerning the slaughter of pigs, some of the biggest European pig slaughterhouses use carbon dioxide at high concentrations as the preferred stunning method, in particular in Spain, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. The stunning of pigs with carbon dioxide gas should have been phased out by now and replaced by non-aversive stunning methods such as inert gases. Others are still using electrical stunning.

The use of carbon dioxide is highly aversive for the animals and causes acute pain and severe distress from first exposure to the gas to loss of consciousness. Most pigs exposed for a sufficient length of time to high-concentration CO2 will actually be dead when they are released from the stunning box. The reasons why it is still allowed is purely economic and commercial.

Any ban against the use of carbon dioxide seems not likely in the near future. This stunning method is permitted for pigs by the EU legislation and therefore the use of it does currently not represent any a non-compliance. The Commission is aware that the method presents disadvantages but says that alternatives are not free from animal welfare issues.

In the context of the revision of the animal welfare legislation foreseen with the Farm to Fork Strategy, the Commission intends to evaluate if this method can be still be authorized.

“We believe that the European Commission is not doing enough with regard to the enforcement of the Pigs Directive and on alternatives to the cruel practice of stunning with carbon dioxide,” commented Reineke Hameleers, CEO of animal welfare NGO Eurogroup for Animals

“It’s unprecedented that for a Directive entered into force more than ten years ago, and with massive breaches in 80% of member states, no infringement process has been launched and only totally ineffective soft measures have been applied,” she added.

“We have good hopes that the current European Commission will tackle these issues in the revision of the Animal Welfare laws and imminently end the cruel killing  of pigs with high concentrations of CO2, as recommended by European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2020. More resources should be allocated to the development of alternatives to this practice. “

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times


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