Pig problems and the debate over farrowing crates


13 June 2022

Sharon Brettkelly

Consumer expectations are changing when it comes to animal welfare - so where does that leave the pork industry and the debate over the use of farrowing crates?

Listen - Pig problems and the debate over farrowing crates

Pig farmers are caught in the middle in a battle over farrowing crates, amid a major shakeup to the way pork is produced.

The saga also highlights the growing pressure on farmers to keep up with the changing demands of consumers.

Up to 60 percent of New Zealand pig farmers use the steel farrowing crates. The sows are put in them just before they give birth and they're kept there for up to five weeks after they've given birth.

Farmers and industry groups say the crates prevent the sows crushing the piglets to death, but animal welfare groups say they're bad for the mother pig's mental and physical health.

The ongoing use of farrowing crates was deemed unlawful in a 2020 High Court ruling and the government agreed to phase out their use by 2025.

But industry groups like New Zealand Pork say thousands more piglets will die, and it could put pig farmers out of business.

The move is complicated by messy messaging over the course of a decade about New Zealand's animal welfare legislation, with farmers told farrowing crates were out, then they were allowed back in, then they were out again.

New Zealand Pork has been pushing the issue with a review underway of the welfare code for pigs by the independent National Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC) and the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).  

The review was prompted by the court ruling, which recommended new rules on the use of farrowing crates.

The draft welfare code includes changes to the use of crates and the amount of space that needs to be provided for grower and weaner pigs. Consultation with farmers and the public closes in early July.

But whatever the outcome, farrowing crates will have to be out by 2025, says veterinarian Helen Beattie, who specialises in the science of animal welfare.

Beattie, who founded the group Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Aotearoa, explains to The Detail the complex history of New Zealand's animal welfare laws and the world-first inclusion of animal sentience in a series of legislative amendments made in 2015.

She says the debate around farrowing crates has put huge stress on the farmers, which flows on to their families and communities, and the animals themselves.

But Beattie believes we can be both pro-farming and pro-animal welfare.

"The thing about animal welfare is that it's a journey, it's just taking little steps in the right direction all of the time," she says.

And that's something consumers too are coming to expect.

"Expectations change, consumers want different things and consumers are a really powerful part of this conversation and becoming increasingly more discerning," she says.

"Yes, there is conflict in the conversation, and I think what people like me want to see is bringing the animal welfare science to the conversation and saying, we get that it's hard, but strategically we have to keep making progress because if we don't, our farming systems using farmed animals are going to be irrelevant because people won't want to eat our products or wear our products."