Better lives for pigs

After poultry, pigs are the second most popular terrestrial farmed animal species worldwide. In 2019, 245 million pigs were slaughtered in the EU, which is the main global exporter of pig meat. 

The vast majority of EU pigs are kept under intensive indoor conditions. Industrial husbandry systems are normally barren and therefore fail to satisfy even the most basic behavioural requirements of pigs, to the extent that these inquisitive and intelligent animals need to be mutilated to avoid the consequences of abnormal behaviours due to boredom, stress and bad health.

Instead of addressing environmental and managerial shortcomings, the industry still routinely subjects pigs to prolonged close confinement and painful husbandry procedures such as tail-docking, castration and teeth clipping or grinding, typically without any pain relief. 

Male piglets are subject to painful surgical castration to avoid the possibility that, once grown up, their meat will emit an unpleasant odour when cooked, known as boar taint. Although boar taint only occurs in 3-5% of pigs, and even though the presence of boar taint can be detected at the slaughter line, most countries still surgically castrate 80% or more of male piglets.  In the majority of cases, surgical castration is still carried out without adequate pain relief. This happens in spite of the availability of painless alternatives, such as raising entire boars or vaccination against boar taint (immunocastration). 

Another painful practice carried out on farmed piglets is the clipping or grinding of the corner teeth. This is done under the guise of protecting the sow and other competing piglets during suckling. 

Sows can still lawfully be kept in individual confinement during the first part of gestation and for farrowing and lactation. This ultimately means that, on average, sows across the EU still spend a significant proportion  of their lives in cages where they can only lie down, sit and stand up, often developing locomotion problems, joint swellings and lameness. 

Due to a derogation foreseen by EU law, young piglets can be separated from their mothers when only three weeks old. Early separation is convenient from a production perspective but, due to low immunity and stress, it makes piglets very vulnerable to develop gut problems that can be fatal. Antimicrobials or zinc oxide (a substance with a negative environmental impact) have been routinely used by the pig industry to limit piglet mortality around the weaning period, which is incompatible with the EU and global goal of reducing antimicrobial resistance and protecting the environment.

piglets
piglet tail docking

Tail docking is the practice of shortening a pig’s tail to prevent tail biting. Tail biting usually occurs when pigs are bored or stressed due to their poor quality environment, poor health or lack of stimulation.

The procedure is normally carried out without pain relief on piglets younger than 7 days. Tail docking does not in itself prevent tail biting as a significant proportion of pigs with docked tails have tail lesions.

While Directive 2008/120/EC on the minimum standards for the protection of pigs (the Pig Directive) forbids routine tail docking in pigs, a recent study showed that 77% of pigs’ tails had been docked in the 24 countries involved in the study. 

216MILLION

PIGS SLAUGHTERED IN THE EU IN 2018

4%

PIGS WHO SUFFER FROM BOAR TAINT

72%

MALE PIGLETS STILL SURGICALLY CASTRATED IN MOST COUNTRIES

WHAT DOES THE PUBLIC THINK?

The last special Eurobarometer on animal welfare confirmed that the general public wants all farmed animals to be better protected and this has been recognised as a guiding principle in the EU Farm to Form Strategy.

Additionally, European citizens do not support mutilations in pigs, especially if these are carried out without pain relief. Eurogroup for Animals’ 2017-18 campaign ‘End Pig Pain’ collected over 1 million signatures from citizens of the EU and beyond calling on the European Commissioner and national agricultural ministers to enforce the ban on routine tail docking and teeth clipping of pigs, phase out painful piglet castration, and provide better rearing conditions for pigs by 2024. 

POLICY - CURRENT STATE OF PLAY

Directive 2008/120/EC lays down the minimum animal welfare standards of pigs kept for farming purposes. Nearly 27 years after its coming into force, it is apparent that many such standards have neither been properly implemented nor enforced. For instance, the European Commission recently confirmed that the ban on routine tail docking in pigs is still disregarded by 25 out of 27 Member States. Regrettably, the Directive also still allows surgical castration and tail docking without anaesthetic or pain relief in piglets up to seven days old. This is in contrast to scientific evidence showing that young piglets experience acute and chronic pain as a result of these procedures.

There is a wealth of freely accessible materials and information developed by the European Commission on the prevention of tail biting in pigs to avoid tail docking. The European Commission has also funded research on the dissemination of alternatives to surgical castration. The first European Reference Centre on Animal Welfare was dedicated to pigs and is currently developing indicator factsheets and a knowledge base with guidance on best practices to improve many aspects of pig welfare. This knowledge base should help the Member States competent authorities to make informed decisions on the enforcement of the Pigs Directive.