Bernie Peet is president of Pork Chain Consulting Ltd. of Lacombe, Alberta, and editor of Western Hog Journal. His columns will run every second week in the Manitoba Co-operator.
British pig producers have long extolled their high animal welfare standards compared to European competitors and welfare has been an important component of quality assurance schemes since their inception in the early ’90s.
However, measurement of welfare has always been a challenge because it has been done by assessing various aspects of the pigs’ environment and management rather than the pigs’ behaviour or specific welfare indicators. For example, pen-space allowances, number of feeders and drinkers, room temperature and provision of adequate hospital pens are currently assessed during a QA audit. But, even if these meet the defined standard, does it mean that the pigs’ welfare is good?
Increasingly, welfare scientists and industry organizations are beginning to think not.
The British animal welfare organization RSPCA has been closely involved with the development of new methods of welfare assessment. For about 15 years, it has run its own quality assurance program called Freedom Food, which now has about 2,800 members and a substantial share of the market for meat, milk, eggs and even salmon. The scheme focuses primarily on animal welfare, which is the No. 1 food concern of British consumers. As many as 40 per cent worry about the issue, according to recent consumer survey research. Being of British origin (37 per cent) and free from additives or preservatives (36 per cent), make up the other top-three food concerns, followed by a desire to have food produced locally (35 per cent), says the survey.
The RSPCA has been looking at ways of measuring welfare based on a series of welfare indicators. It has been collecting its own welfare outcomes data for about two years and is now in a position to start analyzing the data it has built up on body condition, eye and nose discharge, skin and tail lesions, limb injuries, fighting and abnormal behaviour.
“REAL WELFARE” PROJECT
The British Pig Executive (BPEX), a producer-funded body that carries out research, extension and promotion activities, has just completed a pilot project aimed at helping producers improve the welfare of their pigs by scoring a number of meaningful welfare indicators such as tail and body lesions and lameness. The “Real Welfare” project is being run by a group comprising BPEX, producers, vets, researchers, RSPCA, and others. About 360 farms will now be involved in the main project, making it the biggest-ever welfare survey conducted by the industry.
Industry leaders want to demonstrate that welfare can be good, irrespective of the production system.
“It will be an objective means of demonstrating that we are good welfarists, instead of being judged on type or size of unit or the perception that one production system is always better than another,” says Meryl Ward, a producer and BPEX board member. “It will also be a valuable tool to help inform decision on the farm. Improved pig management will equal more productive pigs, which will mean a more profitable business.”
Real Welfare is being introduced now because policy-makers, animal- welfare lobby groups and retailers are making ever-greater demands, which are frequently ill informed, Ward says.
“The pig industry must have strong science-based evidence to influence the welfare debate, or it could all get out of hand.”
Specially trained veterinarians will be used to carry out the two-hour “welfare outcomes” audits and the 360 farms will be split four ways between indoor and outdoor breeding units and straw-based and slatted finishers. The key areas that will be assessed are use of environmental enrichment; lameness; tail lesions; hospitalizations and body lesions.
Environmental enrichment is a controversial issue, both in Britain and other EU countries. Under EU law, pigs must be provided with “manipulable materials” in the pens, to satisfy exploratory and rooting behaviour. In slatted systems, this is difficult to do, so producers tend to use “hard” materials such as chains or wood posts.
The Real Welfare audits will measure the number of pigs exhibiting exploratory behaviour and the different types of objects they are manipulating.
“Research has shown that pigs show a strong preference for complex, chewable, novel and edible materials, which is not satisfied by alternatives such as hard pen fittings,” explains Ward. “If the pigs aren’t using the enrichment material, this behavioural need is most likely not being satisfied and the risk of problems such as tail biting is increased. Provision of appropriate material should reduce abnormal behaviour directed at penmates.”
In time, the new methods of welfare assessment will be built into the Assured British Pigs assurance program, providing a new point of differentiation over competitors. This will help producers maintain the premium of around $0.30/kg that they currently have over the average price in the EU. In addition, it will provide credible benchmarks for real pig welfare, which work for all types of production systems and will also allow producers to make improvements to welfare standards. Perhaps as important in the long term, it will provide ammunition to fight the illogical and emotional arguments of some animal-welfare lobby groups, by enabling the industry to demonstrate good welfare through a science-based assessment system.