Pigs – in there

January 6, 2009

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A shocking article today on the conditions in which pigs are reared in most of Western Europe, where most of our bacon comes from, reminded me of Robert Wyatt’s song Pigs – in there. (If you haven’t heard it there’s an MP3 at Leaky Sparrow’s blog, scroll down to the bottom of the post).

The article was by Jon Henley, who seems to have been transformed from jaunty/jokey Diarist into campaigning reporter. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but in summary, Britain has introduced decent welfare standards for pigs, which are more complied with than not, but most of Europe hasn’t, and we don’t ensure that people exporting pork to the UK comply with our standards. The result is every bit as bad as battery farming for hens, with pigs – who are clean, intelligent and playful animals – kept in the dark inside in conditions which reduce them to boredom and fighting with each other.

A Dutch pig farmer he interviews blames market conditions:

“We’re supplying what the market wants,” he insists. “And where are we, the farmers, in the chain? The retailers tell the slaughterhouses what they’ll pay, the slaughterhouses set their prices for us. Everyone takes their margin, and right at the bottom it’s the farmer. People, consumers, just aren’t being realistic; they want cheap meat, then they’re worried about welfare. Buy organic, then! Pay twice the price. But no one will do that.”

Another Dutch couple are more reflective – it will take laws and more effort in the food chain:

The Kerstens are a charming, and plainly thoughtful, couple in their 50s. … “It’s all a compromise,” says Lowie. “Everyone would like to see better conditions for pigs, but change demands time, good laws, an effort from everyone in the chain and responsibility, from the producer, the retailer, the consumer and the politician. The cold fact is that better welfare means more expensive meat. We’d love to produce it; are people ready to buy it?”

Meanwhile, a British farmer – who was losing £26 per animal when feed prices rocketed last summer, says the problem is the supermarkets’ assumptions about what consumers want:

“The retailers always say the customer likes the cheapest,” she says. “We say we think the customer would actually like the choice. But the bottom line is, if people don’t want to pay for higher welfare, farmers will stop doing it.”

I would like the choice, certainly. Henley also quotes Churchill’s memorable line about pigs:

“I like pigs. Dogs look up to you; cats look down on you; pigs treat you as equal.”

Update, 9th January: A letter from Professor JT Winkler of London Metropolitan University’s Nutrition Policy Unit points the fingers firmly at the supermarkets, and at the margins they gouge on organics and fairly traded food:

The real problem does not lie with the farmers. The devils in this saga are the supermarkets and national meat inspection services. The organic farm you studied produces its pigs at double the cost of conventional animals. But Sainsbury’s sells that farm’s bacon at six-and-half times the price of its basic range. This is an extreme example of the extra margin (the “health premium”) that retailers commonly load on to better products. If humanely produced pig meat costs more in the shops, most of the difference comes from supermarkets’ exploiting their customers’ principles.

The picture is of a Croatian pig farm, from Animal Friends Croatia.

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