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Moves to Group Housing Systems Gather Pace Globally

29 May 2014

The practice of group housing for pigs has been a requirement in the European Union since the start of last year. In the UK, it has been a practice for the pig industry since 1999, writes Chris Harris.

Now around the world there is a movement being driven by animal welfare groups and NGOs together with retail chains and food service groups and processors for pigs to be housed in more welfare friendly environments.

In Australia, the pig sector and Australian Pork Ltd have pledged to ban the use of gestation crates by 2017.

The fast food chain, McDonald’s has told all its pork suppliers that it will only take pork from loose housed operations from 2022.

A significant part of the pig production in Canada is also now looking at moving away from crates to loose housing systems.

In the US, several states have already passed legislation outlawing stalls and demanding more welfare friendly housing, albeit not in the major pig production areas.

Sow Housing Regulated in European Union

In the European Union, where it has become law across all 28 countries, the requirement for loose housing systems is laid down in Pigs Directive (2008/120/EC) that stipulates the minimum standards for the protection of pigs.

The sow stall ban makes it illegal to confine sows for their entire pregnancy, and requires sows to be group housed from four weeks after mating or earlier.

The Directive also requires that sows have permanent access to rooting materials and outlines floor and space requirements.

Despite the fact that the legislation was first moved in 2001 and European countries were given 12 years to bring their pig production operations into line, several countries were still not ready at the start of last year and some still have not fallen into line.

In February 2013, a formal letter of notice was sent by the European Commission to nine Member States, the first step of the infringement procedure.

Now, the Commission has issued the next step, the reasoned opinion, for four of them: Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and France. Should these countries fail to comply with EU law within two months, the Commission may refer them to the EU Court of Justice, the final step of the infringement procedure.

The Commission has also now opened the first step of the infringement procedure against Slovenia and Finland, by sending a letter of formal notice.

Many EU food retailers have pledged to source only from compliant countries, partly to prevent non-compliant pig meat entering the food chain and also to protect their reputations.

According to Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), some leading EU food businesses are making commitments well beyond legislative requirements for sows, by eliminating stalls from their housing systems altogether – using free farrowing systems (meaning no use of the farrowing crate, which is not mentioned in the legislation), and by providing bedding and manipulable material throughout the sow’s life.

“These leading companies are also committing to improve the lives of the meat pig by eliminating the use of tail docking, teeth clipping or grinding, and castration practices, and by providing pigs with bedding and manipulable material throughout their lives,” says CIWF.

While, some pig farms are going beyond the legal requirements and some companies are demanding welfare arrangements above the minimum, the EC Directive only demands a partial stall ban.

The main requirements are:

  • Part of the unobstructed floor area is available to sows, and gilts must be of continuous solid flooring
  • Sow stalls will be prohibited from four weeks after service to one week before the expected time of farrowing
  • Sows and gilts must have permanent access to manipulable material
  • In order to satisfy hunger, all dry pregnant sows and gilts must be provided with bulky or high-fibre food.

The Directive says it lays down minimum standards for the protection of pigs.

These minimum standards apply to all categories of pigs kept for rearing and fattening: piglets (from birth to weaning), weaned piglets (from weaning to 10 weeks old), fatteners (more than 10 weeks old), sows and gilts, boars, etc.

These animals are, apart from some exceptions (farrowing sows, boar), to be raised in groups.

Standards concerning floor area are set according to the weight of the animal: between 0.15 square meters for pigs weighing less than 10kg and 1.0 square meters per animal over 110kg, 1.64 square meters per gilt, 2.25 square meters per sow, 6.0 square meters for a boar (10.0 square meters if the boar is used for natural service).

Some accommodation standards will only apply after 1 January 2013 (for buildings constructed before 2003 or after the date of accession to the EU).

Floors must be smooth but not slippery so as to prevent injury to the animals.

The lying area must be comfortable, clean and dry.

Farmers must implement measures aimed at fulfilling basic needs and preventing aggression within the group. In particular, pigs must have permanent access to a sufficient quantity of enrichment material in order to enable proper investigation and manipulation activities.

Pregnant sows and gilts must, if necessary, be treated against external and internal parasites. Tethering sows and gilts has been prohibited since 1 January 2006.

One week before farrowing, sows and gilts can be isolated. An unobstructed area must be available for natural or assisted farrowing. Boxes must be equipped with piglet protection systems.

The directive also demands that no piglets can be weaned from the sow at less than 28 days of age unless the welfare or health of the dam or the piglet would be adversely affected.

It also calls for measures to be taken to ensure that the animals do not fight. Pigs are to be kept in groups and must not be mixed. Aggressive animals are to be kept away from the group.

The introduction of the new directive in the EU has also led to many innovations in pig management such as the introduction of electronic feeding systems, new flooring systems and pen designs.

Progress on Group Housing of Sows in the United States

However, while the concept of group housing is starting to become the norm in Europe and countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada - where under the new Canadian Pig Code of Practice, all newly built or renovated sow barns must house mated sows and gilts in groups - some producers, notably in the US, are resisting change.

There is an opinion that the systems being used at present allow for better individual care of the pigs, but there are also great concerns about the investment needed to turn the existing pig barns into group housing systems together with the potential for an increased impact on the environment produced by the potentially larger buildings.

Recently, in Connecticut, the Senate Environment Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly defeated a measure banning the use of gestation stalls.

A move had been made to add language outlawing gestation stalls to a bill establishing an animal care standards board.

The attempt failed on a 15-9 vote after the committee heard from farmers from across the state that the ban would make criminals of farmers using humane farming practices.

According to the pig farmers who support the use of gestation stalls, the vast majority of the country’s hog farmers use them to house pregnant sows because they allow for individual care and eliminate aggression from other sows.

They say that the housing method is approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians as appropriate for providing for the well-being of sows.

Defeat of the stall ban measure in Connecticut was the latest in a series of losses for animal-rights groups, which over the past few years have expended significant resources on the issue in several northeast states with no results.

However, animal welfare groups such as the Humane Society of the United States maintain these housing systems are inhumane to sows and while retail and food service chains continue to lay down welfare requirements to their suppliers, the battle over the use of sow stalls and the change to group housing systems it would seem will continue.

May 2014

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