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English Pig Industry Launches Real Welfare for Pigs

by 5m Editor
19 February 2010, at 10:16am

UK - The English pig industry will start to take ownership of the European pig welfare debate this year as it rolls out a radical programme based on real animal welfare — from the perspective of the pigs themselves.

It will help professional English pig-keepers debunk the claims of the increasingly vocal minority who prowl corridors of power condemning all modern pig production methods.

And it will provide science-based data to demonstrate the welfare credentials of producers’ own units. Initially the programme will be voluntary but in due course it could become part of the industry’s two independently-audited assurance schemes.

It will concentrate on real welfare instead of the perceived welfare more commonly cited by vegetarian and welfarist groups.

Stockmanship

“At heart, we are all stockmen first and businessmen second, and this 'welfare-outcomes' programme will give us the tools to demonstrate our professionalism as stockmen and stockwomen, and at the same time it will be good for business,“ said BPEX chairman Stewart Houston this morning.

“The English pig industry has set its stall out to improve performance by outcomes rather than processes, and that includes both the welfare and environmental aspects of our business.

“For instance, currently farm assurance is process-driven. It involves ticking a lot of boxes and that doesn’t really tell us too much about pig welfare.

“In contrast, this new programme is going to concentrate on the welfare-outcome of the way we keep our pigs, whether that be outside, on straw or on slats.“

Specialist pig vets will be trained to carry out ‘welfare outcome’ audits of pig farms, applying scores for tail and body lesions, lameness and several other meaningful empirical welfare indicators.

Improving welfare

The results will be benchmarked so pig-keepers are able to compare their husbandry and take the necessary actions to improve welfare.

The real-welfare programme will see English pig-keepers take a step forward in their welfare standards, confirming their leading position in Europe as producers of premium-quality pork and pork products, worthy of a premium price.

Importantly the programme will give indoor producers the tools they have demanded for some time to show that on well-run units slats can be as welfare-friendly as straw.

And it will help all pig-keepers demonstrate when tail-docking is essential in the interests of good welfare, and when the manipulable material they supply is effective as environmental enrichment.

Being able to produce evidence-based information will be particularly important to pig-keepers in the months ahead as Defra threatens a five percent cut in Single Farm Payment every time Rural Payment Agency inspectors find ‘routine’ tail-docking and inadequate environmental enrichment.

Underpinned by research

The programme, which is being described as “Welfare Outcomes“ by BPEX, is a BPEX initiative underpinned by research carried out by University of Bristol.

It is the result of a considerable ongoing investment of levy-payers’ money. The target is to get some 80 percent of the English industry taking part in two-hour 'welfare-outcome' audits, carried out by specially trained pig vets.

In the fullness of time the trail-blazing English initiative may join with the more complex but less advanced European Welfare Quality Project.

The immediate target is to persuade the owners of around 400 pig units to take part in an evaluation study, the farm types being spilt four ways, between indoor and outdoor sows, and straw and slatted finishers.

The aim of the project is to get away from facile straw-versus-slats labels currently employed by animal welfare groups, the politicians they successfully lobby, and retailers.

Indoor units

By concentrating on ‘welfare outcomes’ and benchmarking the results, it should be possible to demonstrate that intensive indoor pig production systems have the capacity to be as welfare-friendly as outdoor systems.

BPEX started this project in order to take leadership of a welfare debate that increasingly is spiraling out of control as it becomes dominated by groups that are not necessarily well-informed about pig welfare but which do have access to United Kingdom and European legislators.

Objectives

The objectives of the project are as follows:

  • To use scientific principles to develop welfare policy.
  • To generate credible 'welfare-outcome' benchmarks for the English pig industry for both breeding and feeding herds.
  • To evaluate the robustness of data across seasonal variation etc by repeat assessments of sample farms.
  • To produce advisory tools to promote the benefits to pig-keepers and the wider industry.
  • To demonstrate that pig-keepers are good welfarists, rather than leaving them to be judged by the size and type of their unit.
  • To consider future marketing opportunities resulting from robust welfare audits.

By setting science-based benchmarks and taking leadership of the increasingly vociferous welfare debate in Britain and across the continent, BPEX hopes to be able to work with pig-keepers, processors, retailers and consumers to add value to pigmeat from participating farms.

Outcomes

BPEX envisages the following outcomes for English pig producers:

  • The industry will no longer be on the back foot as far as welfare is concerned. Pig-keepers will be able to objectively demonstrate the real welfare status of their unit. They will be able to prove they are good welfarists, rather than being judged by animal welfare groups, regulators, retailers and others, simply on the size and type of their unit.
  • The industry will be able to use sound scientific principles and on-farm objective measurements to overcome current outdoor-good-versus-indoor-bad perception.
  • The welfare-outcome project will be added to farm assurance, replacing other components.
  • New marketing opportunities, for instance ‘English Welfare Quality Pork’.
  • A weapon to be used to fend off future non-science based legislation.
  • Potential for better regulation through reduced inspections.

The project is at an advanced stage but still has a long way to go, as it enters the evaluation phase.

The parameters to be measured on farms have yet to be completely finalised and will be the subject of a meeting called by BPEX for 1 April.

Securing the future

Although some pig-keepers may have reservations about the burden imposed, in due course, by an extended ‘welfare outcomes’ assurance audit, those who have been watching welfare pressures building on the European pig sector over the past 18 months (as regularly reported in Pig World) will view the BPEX initiative as timely and with the potential to secure the sustainability of the sector for several years ahead.

“I was initially nervous about this programme,“ said Mr Houston. “But we have spent a lot of time checking it is robust, and that the outcomes can be replicated across successive audits.

“As we get nearer to 2013 we need to find ways of keeping in front of the welfare debate and this is the best way of making it happen — from a marketing point of view as well as a welfare perspective.“