The latest attempts to improve pig welfare could be a watershed moment for farming in New Zealand. By Andrea Graves.
'But bacon tastes goood. Pork chops taste goood." Who can forget John Travolta uttering that line in the classic 90s movie Pulp Fiction – a retort to a character who doesn't eat pork.
Several religions have rules on pork. But for many Kiwis, giving up bacon is unthinkable – even if the idea takes a hit every few years.
In 2009, TVNZ's Sunday programme shocked many viewers by exposing the appalling conditions in which some sows were kept. Fronted by former comedian Mike King, it showed pigs held between iron rails, chewing at bars and frothing at the mouth. The backlash was immediate.
Six years later, the World Health Organisation declared that processed meat, which includes bacon, ham and salami, is carcinogenic. Although it made front-page news all over the world, it doesn't appear to have done long-term damage to sales in this country. According to OECD figures, New Zealanders' pork consumption grew from 16kg per person in 2009 to about 19kg last year.
Conditions for Kiwi pigs have improved since 2009 — confinement of sows for months on end is now banned. But pork seems poised to take more blows. Like many businesses, pig farmers are facing increased costs due to the war in Ukraine. And some claim that proposals for even higher welfare standards will be the final straw that will force them to quit altogether.
In fact, almost no one seems happy about the latest attempt to improve conditions for pigs. Farmers insist it is untrue that their pigs are unhappy; animal rights groups are convinced profits are still being prioritised over animal welfare; and officials are smarting from being rapped over the knuckles by the High Court for allowing unlawful practices.
Above it all hovers the Animal Welfare Act 1999, and underneath sit the pigs, which scientists have likened to dogs and chimpanzees for their mental abilities and urge to play.
Overwhelmed by change
The new Pig Code of Welfare proposed by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is open for consultation until July 8. But it is not just pig farmers who have an interest in the outcome.
Marcelo Rodriguez Ferrere, a senior lecturer in the University of Otago's law faculty, says the reason we need such codes is because the law is based on generic principles and does not include specific rules for different species. In 2018, MPI announced that all 19 codes of welfare would be revised and strengthened. Consultation is under way on not only the code for pigs but also dairy cattle. Revised codes for sheep and beef cattle will be next, then deer, then poultry. Whatever changes are made for pigs are also likely to pave the way for other species. And those changes could be significant.
Pig farmers were expecting two changes to the code as a result of a legal victory by animal-rights groups in 2020: the end of farrowing crates (rails that confine sows while they give birth and suckle their piglets) and of mating stalls (used to hold pigs while they are inseminated). Instead, a raft of changes have been proposed.
"There is only one standard that's left unchanged, and nearly 100 changes in total," says Brent Kleiss, NZ Pork's chief executive. "The effect on the industry as a whole would be gigantic and could spell the end of it."
According to Kleiss, some farmers will simply quit the industry once their buildings come to the end of their life. "We're terrified our voice will be drowned out during the consultation period by people who are well-meaning but unfamiliar with the science behind pig welfare."
The most expensive changes would be eased in over several years. But an economic analysis by consultants Sapere estimates the proposals would halve annual farm earnings, and an average farm would need to spend $2.7 million to reconfigure and extend buildings. "Pig farmers don't have that kind of money lying around," says Kleiss.
According to Sapere, farmers would need to save existing earnings for 19 years and the price of pork would need to rise by 18 per cent to cover the cost.
New Zealand's animal-welfare standards may be well-meaning, but they affect only 40 per cent of the pork that Kiwis eat. Most pork sold in New Zealand comes from Germany, Spain, Poland, Canada and the United States, where highly confined farming is cheap and normal. These pigs often end up as bacon and ham.
"How are we meant to compete against farms with 30,000 pigs, all of them in crates for all of their lives?" says Bindi Ground, director of Waratah Farms.
At present, New Zealand's 90-odd pig farmers produce about 45 million kilograms of pork each year. If that falls, it's likely that imported pork would fill the gap.
Thanks to new country-of-origin labelling regulations, shoppers should now be able to identify where their pork comes from by reading the small print, although salami and sausages are exempt. Kleiss thinks we should go further. Pork is about a third cheaper than beef because imports restrict local producers' ability to cover increased costs, he says. "People say they want welfare-friendly, sustainable products, but they vote with their wallets."
In May, NZ Pork presented a petition to Parliament asking for the same animal-welfare standards to be applied to both imported and local pork. However, New Zealand could be waiting for some time for other countries to catch up. The few that already prohibit farrowing crates, such as Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, tend to subsidise their farmers and export very little pork. Although the European Union is due to introduce a legislative proposal by the end of next year to "Ban the Cage Age" for all farmed animals, its farmers have been assured of financial support and incentives.
In New Zealand, MPI says it is exploring options to support farmers. As well as transition periods, support is also likely to include "possible funding for pilot projects to test management and production systems that fit in with the proposals", says a spokesperson.
Going the extra mile
Some local farms already exceed the proposed standards. Even before the High Court found fault with farrowing crates, Waratah Farms started trialling maternity units that give mother sows more space. When the Listener visits the large King Country breeding farm, most sows are confined in crates, which allow little movement other than standing and lying, and are designed to prevent mothers accidentally crushing their piglets as they lie down. They were put in there five days before their piglets were due and stay until their piglets are weaned. In nearby experimental pens, the crate rails were lifted when the piglets were five days old.
Operations manager Stuart Shaw, an Englishman who clearly loves pigs, explains that by then the piglets scuttle out of their mother's way when she's about to lie down, having learnt her cues.
The mothers in both set-ups are placid, their piglets gathering on heated pads and moving to their mother's teats when she grunts. "You can't say this is a welfare problem," says Shaw.
MPI says it is open to suggestions on how farmers can meet the welfare needs of sows and piglets. The new code also proposes two options: total freedom for the sow, or crates for just three days after birth.
Kirsty Chidgey, NZ Pork's animal-welfare adviser, believes the latter may not work. That's because the code proposes sows be able to build a nest before they farrow, a behaviour Chidgey says is intrinsically important to them. Three-day crating could begin only after nest-building finishes, but farmers aren't constantly present and cannot predict exactly when sows will nest-build and farrow.
Unrestrained sows crush more piglets, causing pain and distress, but less so when they have loose material and more space.
The High Court also criticised restraining sows in mating stalls for the week after their piglets are weaned, during which sows are artificially inseminated. About half of farms have already stopped that, says Chidgey. At Waratah, sows are inseminated during a couple of hours of confinement, and the new code proposes three hours at most.
But that freedom comes with trade-offs, she says. After their piglets are weaned, sows can become very aggressive when mixed with others. "The less-dominant ones can really suffer in groups."
The tussles might be eased by another proposed change: providing all pigs with material they can manipulate, such as straw or hessian sacks. Most indoor pigs live on bare concrete or slatted floors, but a huge area of pigs' brains is devoted to their noses and mouth, matching their desire to root and explore. Many of the barren rooms at Waratah are being replaced with pens floored with sawdust, which is later composted and sold.
Too much freedom?
The new code also proposes giving growing pigs more space, so they can lie down without overlapping. Kleiss says this would be by far the biggest and most expensive change for farmers. It is also an example of a misunderstanding about how pigs live, he says. "Farmers see that pigs huddle together when they lie down and leave big areas empty."
Holly Sterne of Patoa Farms, an SPCA-approved free-farming operation in North Canterbury, agrees. "Piglets are put in their growing spaces when they're small, so there's a lot of space for them to grow into. Much more and you interfere with their natural dunging behaviour – which normally helps keep the area clean – and their ability to keep each other warm. I think it would mean worse welfare outcomes."
Patoa Farms provides abundant straw for its pigs and sees the value in slightly more space. Kleiss agrees: "We think a 13 per cent increase in space is justified, along with manipulable material to enrich the space's quality for pigs." But the proposal for much bigger increases would require extensive building expansion, he says.
In the wild, sows wean their piglets at between 14 and 17 weeks. At present, most farms leave piglets with their mothers for just three weeks. The new code proposes extending that to four. But even more space will be needed to house sows with their litters for longer, and slurry systems will need to be improved to cope with loose material.
Getting resource consent for a pig farm can already be tough, because some neighbours resent the smell and noise. Bindi Ground says many farms will need more land and buildings to keep producing the same amount of pork. "Banks don't like lending to pig farmers, and getting resource consent takes a long time."
Science and emotions
Are all these changes really required for pig welfare? Animal-welfare scientists argue that they are. In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of the complexity of animals' emotions and scientists now have various ways of measuring these.
Chidgey says most of the changes are justified, but she wishes they were less prescriptive. Kleiss doubts the transferability of scientific research to large commercial farms and says the officials dealing with the issue are not equipped to make such decisions because none are pig specialists.
Gwyneth Verkerk, a retired veterinarian who chairs the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee (NAWAC), which developed the code, says it cannot have specialists for every species among its members but consults them as needed. Its report references more than 100 pig-specific scientific papers and records consultation with pig scientists in at least six countries, pig vets and free-farrowing farms. The committee also visited five local farms and held several meetings with NZ Pork – although NZ Pork says these occurred before the proposals were developed, so farmers couldn't discuss the consequences.
Verkerk says she understands farmers' concerns about costs. "It's unclear whether pig farmers can make the changes. We've got people's livelihoods at stake." However, the High Court has made it clear, she says, that practicality and economic impact cannot override the law when it comes to animal welfare.
Until 2015, MPI could exempt aspects of welfare codes from complying with the law – which requires that animals have the opportunity to display normal patterns of behaviour – in "exceptional circumstances". "The economic argument was always the exceptional circumstance," says Verkerk.
In 2018, MPI reissued a pig welfare code that continued to allow farrowing crates and mating stalls, even though for years their use had been justified only by the now-defunct "exceptional circumstances" clause. The High Court found fault with this flaw in logic.
The law was also amended to recognise that animals are sentient, meaning they can suffer and experience positive emotions. "We now have a legislated imperative to provide for positive emotions," says Verkerk.
See you in court
The 2020 case was the first time the courts have ruled on the validity of aspects of a welfare code. It was a judicial review taken against MPI and NAWAC by the New Zealand Animal Law Association and Save Animals From Exploitation (Safe).
Next month, the two animal rights groups will go to court again, this time over activities allowed by the Rodeo Code of Welfare.
"The Animal Welfare Act makes New Zealand look good in free-trade agreements," says association president Saar Cohen. "But when you read the codes of welfare, you see a massive step away from the principles of the act. If those codes are inconsistent with the act, they're illegal."
Regulatory agencies such as MPI tend to take the path of least resistance to try to please everyone, says Cohen, "but we're trying to tell them that every time you ignore what the legislation says, you can expect to be taken to court".
Debra Ashton, chief executive of Safe, says "kind-hearted New Zealanders" helped fund the 2020 legal action. The draft code, she says, is an improvement, but does not go far enough. For example, it continues to allow practices many people would find abhorrent, such as docking piglets' tails (without anaesthetic if they are under seven days old).
"We should not be raising piglets in environments where they need their tails cut off. I am aware of farmers who go over and above the draft minimum standards and question why we would settle for anything less in a brand-new code of welfare."
But she is not immune to the effect on farmers. "They are fellow Kiwis with families who need to make a living. But things must change and industries need to shift."
Whether dairy farmers feel the same way about changes to their industry remains to be seen. The draft dairy code aims to better meet the needs of cattle – including access to shelter and clean water, and a less-taxing last day or so of life. It is also proposing to improve conditions for calves.
David Burger, general manager for sustainable dairy at DairyNZ, agrees some of the changes are sensible. Others may need clarification, he says, or may be impractical to implement.
Meanwhile, the revision of the pigs code is a watershed moment for pig farming, says Verkerk. "This is a completely different situation to any code we've had before. Farmers tend to push back, but the act's words are strong. It certainly raises questions about how we continue to farm."