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.
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.