30 years after EU Pig Welfare Legislation, will the EU finally step up to protect pigs?

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
30 years after EU Pig Welfare Legislation, will the EU finally step up to protect pigs?

In 1991, the EU adopted legislation laying down minimum standards for the protection of pigs, becoming one of the few jurisdictions in the world to ensure such standards for pigs on farms. However, despite the Pigs Directive having been revised twice since then, pigs in the EU are subject to horrendous living standards.

This is primarily due to the proliferation of factory farms, where sows spend half their lives in cages; farm workers routinely mutilate piglets with castration, tail docking, and tooth clipping; and newborn pigs deemed too weak to survive the inhumane, artificial conditions are smashed upon the floor – a lawful killing method according to the EU Slaughter Regulation. For most EU pigs, the only time they will breathe fresh air, and experience daylight, is a brief moment during transport to the slaughterhouse.

In 2008, ahead of the EU’s recognition of animal sentience in the Lisbon Treaty, which asserted EU countries should “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals,” the Commission revised the Pigs Directive in an attempt to beef up welfare levels in pig production. But to animal advocates, the result was disappointing to say the least.

The reform included surface-level changes involving a slightly shortened duration of cage use for sows, limiting extreme confinement to three weeks during gestation. Though because sows are continually impregnated, their time spent in cages still typically amounts to half of their lives.

Lack of enforcement

And while the revised Pigs Directive attempted to curb “routine tail docking and tooth clipping,” the language banning these practices makes enforcement virtually impossible; thus, such barbarity has continued en masse in top-EU producers; France, Spain, and Germany, where more than 95% of pigs have mutilated tails.

Overall, the 2008 revisions followed an all-too-predictable pattern that has emerged at the EU: the EU imposes some slight limitations of certain cruel practices, with no ban or enforcement, and the agricultural industry grinds along essentially as before, making a mockery of any EU claim to uphold ethical standards of animal welfare.

It is furthermore important to bear in mind that while factory farms have become an entrenched, expanding production model in Europe, the animals being brutalized there are some of the most intelligent and sensitive creatures on the planet. Studies have found that pigs, in particular, are among the most cognitively complex animals, capable of symbolic language comprehension and a range of emotions as shown in their play, fear, and stress responses. (Anyone who has seen the critically-acclaimed documentary Gunda [2020] can attest.)

Yet, though the Pigs Directive acknowledges “[t]ail-docking, tooth-clipping and tooth-grinding are likely to cause immediate pain and some prolonged pain to pigs,” the European Commission’s own audit found an overwhelming majority of pigs in the EU experience these practices.

Does not make business sense

In addition to the moral atrocity taking place in factory farms across Europe, such practices increasingly make less business sense.

With the pig meat sector coming to the EU hat in hand, looking for a bailout, Martin Schulz, chairman of the German Peasant Agriculture Association, has confessed to Euractiv that one factor fueling the punishing downturn in his industry has been the “breeding conditions that consumers do not accept anymore.” Fortunately, this time, the Commission refused to provide special funds to help the sector, questioning market intervention at EU level and noting that “the current market situation is … largely a result of an imbalance between demand and supply.”

Nevertheless, when it comes to reforming the horrific breeding conditions, which involve the painful processes mentioned in the Directive, the EU is actually going in reverse, away from the direction of progress.

In response to younger generations decreasing their pork consumption over concerns about animal welfare and the environment, the EU is using taxpayer money to finance advertisements – what used to be called propaganda – to steer young citizens back into the habit of eating pigs. The ad campaign, “Let’s talk about pork,” depicts pristine, upbeat pigs — in stark contrast to the reality factory farm owners and managers try desperately to keep hidden.

Reform of Directive

With the upcoming reform of the Pigs Directive, the EU will have a golden opportunity to make substantive reforms that should have been in place for the past 30 years. For the EU to truly honor its word as stated in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the revised Pigs Directive must:

  • Ban the use of cages
  • Ban mutilation (castration, tail docking, teeth clipping)
  • Reduce density levels to a significant degree, something that has been achieved in Sweden and Finland
  • Allow animals to spend the vast majority of their lives outdoors and, when indoors, provide them with appropriate and sufficient environmental enrichment materials

Crucially, the EU should enforce the above measures within a reasonable timeframe, as opposed to allowing for overly long “transitional periods,” which have sometimes forestalled implementation for as long as a decade.

If the EU cannot oversee sustainable and humane agricultural practices, if it instead continues to prize profits, exports, and highly concentrated squalor and pain at a time when even some US states are moving away from cages in pig production, the Union will suffer an intensified crisis of credibility.

By Alice Di Concetto, founder of the European Institute for Animal Law & Policy, and Olga Kikou, head of Compassion in World Farming EU.


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