(Image credits: Compassion in World Farming)
The European Declaration on alternatives to the surgical castration of pigs (aka the Brussels Declaration) officially ended on 1 January 2018 and the compte rendu is discouraging for animal welfare. The Declaration was a voluntary agreement signed in 2010 by 33 stakeholders from the whole pork chain (including scientists, veterinarians, and animal welfare NGOs) whose aim was, in the first instance, to eliminate the surgical castration of pigs without pain relief by 2012. The final objective was to reach the phasing out of surgical castration – albeit with some exemptions – by 2018.
Both deadlines and objectives have been spectacularly missed, and progress has been at best stilted, if we consider the latest available statistics collected by the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe . The situation has remained stable in countries where significant progress had already been made thanks to local initiatives (namely the Netherlands and Belgium), and in countries that traditionally don’t castrate (such as the UK and Ireland). On a positive note, in France and Germany the proportion of pigs that are not castrated surgically has reached approximately 20 percent. Additionally, as of 2019 Germany will no longer allow castration without anaesthesia. However, for the rest the situation remains critical and data show that about 80 million male piglets a year are still being castrated either without or with insufficient pain relief (analgesia only).
In most EU countries, week-old piglets are traditionally castrated to avoid the risk of boar taint, an unpleasant odour and taste that can affect less than 5 percent of male carcasses when the pigs reach puberty. Societal concern over the pain inflicted during surgical castration is amply supported by sound scientific evidence: there isn’t the shadow of a doubt that castration is extremely painful. The Federation of Veterinarians of Europe took a firm stance in this regard already in 2009, stating that piglet castration should never be carried out without anaesthesia and analgesia, and preferably it should be avoided in favour of other practices .
What is the industry doing to spare piglets this unnecessarily painful procedure? Not much, at least voluntarily. In spite of signing the Brussels Declaration, the pork chain is still resisting change and has not yet widely adopted more humane alternatives, such as rearing entire males (boars) or vaccination against boar taint. Germany will no longer allow castration without anaesthesia as of 2019, and this move is expected to shake the sector, as this decision will also affect imports. The solution that the industry appears to favour is anaesthesia, but there is a lot of confusion over the methods to use. Additionally, if the pigs are not given both anaesthesia and analgesia for castration, it is unlikely that their welfare will be substantially improved.
Reineke Hameleers, Director of Eurogroup for Animals, says: “It is really appalling to realise the staggering number of piglets that are still undergoing extremely painful surgical castration. This is still happening after an eight year period in which we expected to see this practice disappear. After all the years in which we have seen so little progress, we argue that now the time has come to make surgical castration a thing of the past. Successful examples of countries that have implemented more humane alternatives exist, and there are no more excuses to continue with the worst available practices. Clearly if voluntary commitments do not work, legislation is required, and we will put all our efforts in that direction”.
With its flagship campaign End Pig Pain Eurogroup for Animals invites individuals to sign a petition asking the EU to support a EU-wide ban on surgical piglet castration by 2024. Upon reaching 1 million signatures, the petition will be handed over to the European Commission.
In November 2017, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis declared at an Intergroup meeting in Strasbourg that the issue of alternatives to piglet castration will also be discussed within the sub-group on pig welfare of the EU Platform on Animal Welfare. The sub-group will be officially launched in June this year, and Eurogroup for Animals will push for more decisive actions to move away from surgical castration.
Lucy Mathieson, Communications Officer, Eurogroup for Animals, Email: email@example.com, Tel: +32 (0) 2 740 08 25
Elena Nalon, Farm Animals Programme Leader, Eurogroup for Animals, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 De Briyne N., Berg C, Blaha T, Temple D. (2016). Pig castration: will the EU manage to ban pig castration by 2018? Porcine Health Management 2016, 2:2 https://porcinehealthmanagement.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40813-016-0046-x