A case over the treatment of pigs in New Zealand will be in court in less than two weeks. Pat Baskett takes a look at the potential impacts of the outcome. 

Phoebe was a pig I wrote about some years ago. Her life was a misery. She lived in a metal-barred sow stall 60cm wide and 2m long. She could stand up or lie down but not turn around. Sometimes she would squat on her haunches – a position unnatural for her but which gave some relief – or she would rock back and forth, hour after hour. For variation she would take one of the bars in her mouth and chew on it.

This occupation took her mind off her inability to make a nest for the offspring to which she was about to give birth. A sow’s instinct is to use her snout to create a large hollow and line it with leaves or straw, but the floor of her crate was either concrete or wooden slats. A few days before she was due, the farmer moved her to a slightly larger farrowing crate where she could feed the piglets without lying on one and killing it.

Four weeks later her dozen or so babies were removed, she was re-inseminated and put back in her sow crate to wait out another 16-week pregnancy. Sow stalls were banned in 2012 but weren’t phased out until 2015. Farrowing crates, however, remain legal and are still used by up to half of our pig farmers. Sows are also allowed to be confined in mating stalls for five days after mating or insemination.

The Phoebes of this world are slightly higher on the animal intelligence scale than your dog. If people breeding dogs kept them in similar conditions they would be prosecuted.

A court case scheduled for June 8-9 may see the end of such practices. Save Animals from Exploitation (SAFE) and the New Zealand Animal Law Association, which are bringing the case, claim such confinement violates the Animal Welfare Act of 1999. Safe’s CEO Debra Ashton says the continued use of farrowing crates goes against the obligations and principles of the Act – which aims to ensure all animals are kept in conditions that allow them to carry out their natural behaviours, except in “exceptional circumstances”. Intensive farming seems to be such an exception. 

Consumption of all species of meat, as well as dairy, is causing our emissions from agriculture to rise relentlessly. Yet the price our grandchildren will have to pay as the world overheats still seems as remote as Phoebe in her crate.

The welfare codes established by the National Animal Welfare Committee, the body that gives advice to the government, are not legally binding. It’s a curious anomaly and has led World Animal Protection, an organisation that has been working to protect wild and domestic animals for more than 50 years, to downgrade New Zealand from an original A for animal welfare to a C. 

It was largely thanks to work by SAFE that sow stalls were made illegal. This has improved life for thousands of Phoebes but there’s still a way to go. Intensive farming confines young pigs (remember, they are marginally more intelligent than your puppy) in enclosed spaces for fattening. Boredom and stress lead to harmful behaviour so their tails are docked to prevent tail-biting and more serious forms of cannibalism.

Their lives are still probably better than that of millions of pigs raised in countries with less stringent, or no animal welfare regulations. Sow stalls have limited use in Britain and the EU but farrowing crates are banned only in Sweden, Switzerland and Norway. Consumer pressure is leading some food-producing companies in the US and Australia to phase them out. 

Less than half of the pigs raised in New Zealand live in paddocks, where sows give birth in small huts which they can move in and out of. A little more than half are in indoor intensive farms. Pigs are especially sensitive to heat because they have no sweat glands and they don’t pant as dogs do when hot. This is why they crave the cooling effects of mud and suffer in hot, overcrowded spaces.

Those who bring a set of scruples to the dinner table with them ought to be able to enjoy a bit of bacon, knowing that the animal that provided it had led a decent life. But they’re more than likely to be wrong. NZ Pork claims “If there is no ‘Born and Raised in New Zealand PigCare’ certified label on pork, there is no guarantee that you are buying New Zealand pork or pork products.”

Sixty percent of the pork and pork products eaten in New Zealand are imported. Yet labels fail to tell us the country of origin of the cured or marinated pork that is combined with other ingredients in sausages and a variety of small goods. The label is only required to state where the product was made – which may well be down the road.

It’s understandable local pig farmers are campaigning to make labels show where ingredients come from.

This lack of disclosure is not the only reason the ham in your sandwich may not be grown here. Many imported pig products are half the price of local equivalents – hard to believe given they’re likely to have travelled from Spain, Canada, Finland or the US.

Of course it costs more to ensure a modicum of comfort to an animal. But you pay for what you get – which could include a trace of the antibiotics which are used in facilities with less than optimal conditions and are not needed in New Zealand. 

Most of the 45,000 tonnes of our good pork is consumed here, with relatively small amounts exported to Australia, some Pacific Islands and Singapore. If SAFE’s court case is successful, farrowing crates will no longer be allowed and the result will be a slight rise in the price of your PigCare-labelled ham. So be it. The Phoebes of this world have already paid their price for your privilege.

But the real price of eating pork goes beyond Phoebe’s welfare. Consumption of all species of meat, as well as dairy, is causing our emissions from agriculture to rise relentlessly. Yet the price our grandchildren will have to pay as the world overheats still seems as remote as Phoebe in her crate.

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