Millions of pounds are being spent on marketing campaigns to sell more pork in Britain, but the price paid by pigs is immeasurable
At the end of April , new adverts for pork will hit our television screens, showing us all how easy it is to cook and prepare pulled pork in our own kitchens. This £2 million marketing campaign for pig meat has been implemented by BPEX in an attempt to reach out to younger consumers – a demographic with which fresh pork has been unpopular in recent years. Pulled pork refers to a method of slow cooking that allows the meat to be easily pulled apart, and it has been appearing more and more on the menus of pubs, restaurants, and trendy street food stalls. Having identified a way to prepare pork that seems popular with younger diners, BPEX created adverts to convince consumers that pulled pork is something that can be easily prepared at home, the desired outcome being, simply: more pork sold in Britain.
What is BPEX?
BPEX is a division of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, and their website (www.bpex.org.uk) explains that they are “focussed on enhancing the competitiveness, efficiency, and profitability of pig levy payers in England and driving demand for Red Tractor pork and pig meat products in Britain and globally”. Their strategy for 2014 – 2018 ‘Going for Growth’ outlines a key five point plan that includes ‘Enhance pig welfare’, but this section of the strategy document amounts to a disconcertingly vague list of four bullet points, the first of which refers to ‘the development of Real Welfare as part of farm assurance’.
So what is Real Welfare?
Real Welfare refers to on-farm assessments of pigs that are considered mature and heavy enough to be classed as ‘finisher pigs’ – those destined for eventual slaughter and sale. According to BPEX’s own website, these assessments are: pigs that would benefit from removal to hospital pen, lame pigs, pigs with tail lesions, pigs with body lesions, and enrichment provision. For further information on these points, BPEX offer a PDF called ‘Real Welfare November 14th 2013 Changes’ that explains when farm visits are to be made, how many pigs should be assessed, and what information should be recorded – all of which can be done during the required quarterly visits by veterinary surgeons belonging to the Pig Veterinary Society.
The protocols relating to the welfare measures refer to what vets should be looking for and recording at pig farms whose pork products will carry the Red Tractor label. Millions of pounds have been spent on marketing to assure consumers that Red Tractor means ‘high welfare’ pork, so many people will find it concerning that the latest available protocols from BPEX show that it’s now entirely optional to record the following when carrying out Real Welfare visits to pig farms:
- Tail lesion 1cm or more e.g. scratches and scrapes, or scabs or lesions greater than 0.5cm diameter. Fresh blood and scabs count, scar tissue does not.
- Pig too dirty to record standard lesions or marks
- Lesion longer than 10cm, or 3 or more 3cm lesions or a circular area larger than 1cm diameter on one side of the body. Marks include raised, reddened areas (likely to scab), grazed/broken skin, fresh (i.e. bleeding) wounds and healing lesions (scabs). Scar tissue does not count.
Enrichment provision refers to anything from straw to objects for pigs to chew; the term should cover any appropriate material that satisfies the natural behaviours and curiosities of pigs – things like objects to investigate or bite and chew to prevent tail-biting between pigs sharing a pen. The available BPEX information dedicated to enrichment provision states that only the recording of enrichment types provided is now required, and since November 2013 it has been optional to ‘scan and assign the behaviours of all sitting or standing pigs into one of 3 categories’:
- Enrichment use – mouth or snout in contact with enrichment substrate or object provided as such, in contact with clean turf or soil.
- Other; mouth or snout in contact with other objects or pen mates (including pen floor, pen fittings, dung).
- Active; any standing or sitting pig not covered by the previous categories e.g. feeding, drinking, dunging, or standing/sitting doing nothing with its mouth/snout.
What does this mean for pigs?
What this means is that it is not compulsory to record behaviours that would point to a lack of sufficient and suitable enrichment material for pigs – behaviours like pigs biting each other or rubbing their faces in excrement. If BPEX and the Real Welfare scheme only insist that the enrichment materials be recorded, and not the behaviours which would indicate the efficacy or lack of proper materials, then how can anyone feel confident that basic levels of welfare are being ensured?
This is all information which, according to the latest available guidelines from BPEX, is NOT compulsory to record by way of measuring the welfare of pigs. It is also important to note the claim that “Red Tractor and BPEX do not have access to individual farm data. BPEX manages the anonymised data set amalgamated across all units, which enables us to monitor welfare outcomes across the whole industry” – which begs the question: how can individual farms performing below even these low standards be routinely identified and taken to task over such failures by BPEX?
The most recent available BPEX guidelines pertaining to welfare seem to allow for serious disregard for the physical and mental wellbeing of the pigs themselves. The ‘optional’ status of so many previously ‘required’ criteria relating to the comfort of these creatures must allow these British pig farms to implement even more intensive methods of producing pork; to lower the costs and increase the yield. Non-compulsory recording of behaviours and physical injuries that indicate fundamentally inadequate and uncomfortable conditions represents a cost saving measure. Diminished welfare standards essentially mean a ‘product’ that is cheaper to produce. In this instance, that ‘product’ is an intelligent, sentient animal with the same basic needs and desires for safety and comfort as human persons; but we have somehow decided that it’s acceptable to explicitly deprive them of those basic requirements just so we can eat them and, it seems, ideally pay as little as possible for the privilege.
What does Red Tractor say?
Red Tractor offers some more up-to-date literature than BPEX on the issue of Real Welfare; they have an Autumn 2014 newsletter on pig farming which states: “The review committee has carefully looked at the environmental enrichment section of Real Welfare – which is currently suspended and a number of possibilities are being investigated”. Unfortunately there is no indication that any possibilities being investigated point to significantly improved conditions for the pigs. If Red Tractor and BPEX have more current regulations, they are certainly not easy to find.
People like to think they’re making ethical purchases, so if Red Tractor pork was as ‘high welfare’ as they have claimed in the past, surely every effort would be made to clearly communicate this to the public – especially given that, in 2012, adverts claiming Red Tractor-labelled pork was ‘high welfare’ were banned following a complaint from Compassion In World Farming (CIWF) to the Advertising Standards Authority that the claims were misleading.
The basic truths
Red Tractor is the largest food assurance scheme in the UK, and the vast majority of British pork farms fall under it – around 80% was the figure given in a 2012 Guardian article on the topic of Red Tractor and animal welfare. Many meat-eaters say that they are concerned about animal welfare, and as such they make sure they look for assurances on the packaging when they’re purchasing meat. The simple fact is that these often vague assurances are backed up by big marketing campaigns to convince consumers they’re making a good, ethical choice. But when more closely examined, schemes like Red Tractor fail to do much more than meet the minimum legal standards for welfare. The executive summary of CIWF’s report ‘Farm Assurance Schemes & Animal Welfare’ found “in general, the Assured Food Standards (Red Tractor) schemes ensure little more than compliance with minimum legislative requirements (the interpretation of which is considered inadequate in some cases)”. Even for those that see no problem with the idea of slaughtering pigs to eat, surely the reality of the short miserable lives these animals lead cannot be acceptable.
The thing about an advertising campaign focussed around pulled pork is that, despite any attempts to encourage consumers towards particular labels, it will no doubt lead to an increased indiscriminate purchasing of pork. So even if there was total agreement that pigs enjoyed high welfare under BPEX’s Real Welfare scheme and the Red Tractor label, there will inevitably be boosts in pork sales more generally – which would include pork from EU farms and elsewhere abroad, where animal welfare legislation is typically even looser than it is in the UK. But even in this country we see more evidence of shocking animal abuse within the industry emerging all the time. In February, Hillside Animal Sanctuary obtained a film from a butcher’s abattoir that showed animals being punched, kicked, and thrown around; and several failing to be properly stunned before slaughter. And this is by no means an isolated incident; between 2009 and 2011, Animal Aid filmed in nine UK slaughterhouses, and in all but one they documented animals routinely enduring terrible abuse that included being burnt, beaten, kicked, punched, and given electric shocks with stunning tongs. Ideas like compulsory CCTV and tighter legislation may lead to small welfare improvements and reduced incidences of such monstrous abuse, but it cannot be the real answer; in what system where an animal is regarded merely as a commodity to be killed for food can their treatment ever really be humane?
So while BPEX’s television adverts are encouraging people to eat more pork, trying to appeal to a younger demographic with an on-trend way to prepare animal flesh, I’d encourage everyone to try some amazing pulled jackfruit or seitan recipes. Let’s be honest, it’s all about the texture and flavour, and mock meats and marinades have got that more than covered; there is nothing specific about the fact of it being a dead pig that makes pulled pork superior; and even if that was true, can anyone really say, in all good conscience, that their palate is more important than a pig?