Editorial: New pig code shows power of shoppers

Photo / The Aucklander
Photo / The Aucklander

Animal welfare campaigners had some reason to be concerned over the contents of the new pig welfare code. Matters had dragged on since televised images of distressed pigs in sow stalls prompted a public outcry 18 months ago.

Agriculture Minister David Carter said originally that he wanted to issue a new code by the end of last year. With the industry digging its toes in, that deadline passed, as did most of this year.

During that time, the Government also abruptly dismissed Green Party animal welfare legislation that would have phased out sow crates within five years.

As it happened, however, the public clamour has proved irresistible. The new code of welfare, which limits the use of sow stalls in 2012 to four weeks after mating, and prohibits them by the end of 2015, should satisfy all but the most extreme of activists.

It represents a substantial advance from the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee's 2005 code, which reduced the amount of time a sow could be kept in a sow stall from 2015 to four weeks after mating but talked only of reducing the use of stalls over 10 years.

That timetable had clearly become untenable, given the public concern that had been aroused over the practice. Indeed, as Mr Carter suggested, it might have served also to lull some pig farmers into complacency.

So much so that not only did they not recognise the significance of the television revelations but they were not awake to a growing broad-based demand for more humane treatment of farm animals.

In this country, that sentiment has already seen an upsurge in supermarket purchases of free-range eggs. If nothing was done about sow stalls, there was certain to be a consumer backlash. This threat, in itself, allied to the willingness of overseas competitors to highlight cruel practices, should have prompted pig farmers to abandon the crates.

Many did see the writing on the wall, but 40 per cent of New Zealand pork producers still use them. They must now fall into line following the setting of the appropriate standard.

But it is stretching credibility to suggest this country is now a world leader in this aspect of animal welfare. Sow stalls are already outlawed in Britain, Sweden and Finland, and can be used for only very short periods in the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Nonetheless, New Zealand farmers do have a marketing opportunity, through country-of-origin labelling. The fact that sow stalls are still used in North America, the source of most imported pork, will not be lost on ethical shoppers.

The pork industry says it supports the new code. This about-face is welcome even if, in reality, there was little option. The National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee's review of the use of sow crates involved two rounds of consultation - one with pig farmers and one open to the public, which attracted 18,000 submissions - and an analysis of new research.

The latter supported the need for change. While that time-consuming process may have irked those wanting quick decision-making, it left the industry without room for manoeuvre or justified complaint.

New Zealand Pork estimates the change will cost pig farmers more than $20 million over the phase-out period. Some of the biggest, most intensive, pig farmers will have to adapt, and the price of New Zealand ham, pork and bacon may rise slightly. But many consumers have already shown they are ready to pay a bit extra when buying eggs.

Equally, most of the pig farmers' overseas competitors will surely also have to face up soon to the cost of abandoning sow stalls. Those who do not act will, increasingly, find shoppers willing to take action even when their own governments do not.

- NZ Herald

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