Julia Wrathall: Pressure must be applied to improve animals' welfare

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Pigs are highly intelligent, inquisitive animals which often outdo dogs in learning tests. Indeed, some believe they are the fourth most sentient animals after primates, dolphins and elephants.

Although many pigs live in large straw-bedded barns that enable them to move around and express natural behaviour, some are still reared in conditions that manifestly fail to meet their physical and behavioural needs.

The problem is that, although the law states that pigs must be given appropriate materials to express their instincts to investigate and root, the Government does not enforce this legislation – hence the ongoing failure to ensure all pigs are provided with a comfortable, interesting and stimulating environment.

Although keeping livestock outdoors is not necessarily always best for welfare, free-range systems do give the animals freedom to move around and indulge this natural behaviour. Most pigs grown for meat are reared indoors. Most indoor sows give birth in farrowing crates, restrictive narrow pens that help to protect newborns from being crushed by their mothers, but seriously restrict the sows' movement and behaviour, especially as the confinement lasts until the piglets are weaned at four weeks.

Some growing pigs (juveniles being reared for market) are kept in densely packed pens with no bedding, on concrete. Crowded, barren environments are known to increase the risk of problem behaviours such as tail biting, which can lead to wounds, infection and death. The problem is usually addressed through docking piglets' tails. Most piglets are docked but this treats the symptom while not addressing the root cause of the aggression.

No rules cover the labelling of pork, unlike poultry and eggs, making consumer choice difficult. Retailers can label pork as "outdoor bred" or "free range" without providing definitions. Non-conforming imported pig products are also sold.

If consumers want to support higher welfare production, they should look out for meat carrying the Freedom Food logo. It identifies pork from animals that come from farms accredited under the RSPCA's higher-welfare assurance scheme.

Responsibility for pig welfare lies with every sector of the food chain: farmers, retailers, Government and consumers can all help. Consumers are potentially the most powerful, but only if they are properly informed.

The writer is Head of RSPCA Farm Animal Science

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