Pig welfare second only to Sweden; more can be done

Otago Daily Times

09 February 2023

To get it right for the pigs, the people and the planet, the pork industry needs enough time, support and outcome-based standards. Photo: Otago Daily Times

NZ Pork scientist Kirsty Chidgey responds to Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Aotearoa managing director Helen Beattie on the question of whether New Zealand leads the world in animal welfare issues?

Most will agree with Dr Helen Beattie that this country can be both pro-farming and pro-animal welfare (ODT 20.1.23).

Our reputation as a food producer depends on it. It’s why our products are highly sought after in New Zealand and overseas.

Welfare-washing happens when organisations spread disinformation to present an image of responsibility for animal welfare.

Conflicting standards, confusing labelling, ambiguous definitions, and vague country of origin labelling certainly don’t help people to understand what these all mean in real terms for animal welfare.

To me, as a pig welfare scientist, data and detail are important, and the imported pork data underlines why we need a level playing field now more than ever.

Right now, New Zealand pig farmers are faced with significant changes to their farming practices, the likes of which they have never seen before.

The proposed Code of Welfare for Pigs was open for public consultation last year, gaining 4000 submissions.

We don’t yet know the exact details of what the incoming changes will be.

However, we know that farmers will be transitioning to alternative systems that will give sows more freedom of movement and behavioural expression, sows will be provided nest building material to satisfy their nesting instinct before they give birth, all pigs will have enrichment, and growing pigs will have more space.

NZ Pork has developed its own proposals that would see these changes happen, by evaluating the science and consulting with farmers and international experts.

Around 60% of farmers use farrowing crates, which house the sow twice a year, for up to five weeks at a time when she gives birth and nurses her piglets.

The remaining 42 weeks of the year sows are placed with a familiar herd and can socialise, feed and move about freely.

These farmers will have to transition to an alternative system but we don’t yet know what that will look like, or how long farmers will have to make the transition.

Of course, some farmers will not be able to make the proposed changes, for many reasons, but we will have a better chance at keeping a pork industry in New Zealand if we take a holistic view of the outcomes we want to achieve.

There is a very real risk that we will become reliant on other countries to supply us with pork products.

Already, 60% of the pork consumed in New Zealand comes from overseas, and it doesn’t have to meet our animal welfare standards.

Let’s take a look at how they really stack up compared to New Zealand.

Based on the countries supplying about 98% of imported pork last year, all of the European countries (except Sweden), plus Canada, are using gestation stalls for the first four weeks of a sow’s pregnancy.

The USA can confine sows in gestation stalls for their whole pregnancy. New Zealand banned gestation stalls in 2015.

Australia comes close to New Zealand’s current standards, given most of their industry is not using gestation stalls, however this is by voluntary agreement rather than a legislated one.

Piglets are routinely castrated in Europe, the USA and Canada. Spain, Poland and the USA do not use pain relief when this is carried out.

It is only required in Canada if piglets are under 10 days old.

New Zealand pig farmers do not castrate piglets at all. In Australia, castration without pain relief is still permitted if piglets are less than three weeks old. That would be illegal here.

The EU countries and the USA have no limit on the amount of time a sow may be confined in a farrowing crate, either before or after farrowing.

New Zealand has a minimum standard and a regulation that places a limit on the length of confinement in a crate and also describes the spatial requirements of a farrowing crate. Canada allows up to six weeks.

So, from the looks of things, Sweden is the only country with higher standards than New Zealand although the incoming changes here will close that gap.

Sweden only supplies 6% of imported pork, so the rest comes from countries with lower welfare standards for pigs.

The EU is in the process of reviewing animal welfare standards that will likely bring them into line with New Zealand, eventually.

They have a number of other advantages that we don’t subsidise, lower costs of production, a guaranteed minimum price for their product, and some have protected markets so they don’t have imports to compete with.

Don’t get me wrong. Unequal standards and unfair advantages are not an excuse for avoiding change.

It won’t stop New Zealand pig farmers from progressing. Prioritising animal welfare and taking a holistic view encompassing environmental, health and safety, social, and yes, economic and feasibility aspects (because farming is a business, and people need access to affordable food), will set farmers up to succeed.

The New Zealand pork industry has a role to play in contributing to a sustainable, ethical and secure food system. It is possible to achieve that, and high animal welfare at the same time.

To get it right for the pigs, the people and the planet, the industry needs enough time, support, and outcome-based standards.

This is vital for moving to pen-based systems because flexibility allows us to do research, investigate different technologies, train our people, refine and adapt.

- Dr Kirsty Chidgey is NZ Pork’s animal welfare adviser.