Would seeing this turn you vegan? Credit: Getty Images

January 2, 2023   5 mins

Did you pig out on pigs in blankets this Christmas? Or perhaps you had a traditional roast pork joint with apple sauce for New Year’s Day lunch? The British pig farming industry will certainly hope so, after suffering two of its worst financial years ever. Which is saying something. I started keeping pigs 20 years ago, and exigency is the old normal.

But 2022 was a perfect (pig) shit storm. Thanks in part to the Ukraine War, the price of wheat — a main ingredient in compound pig feed — hit historic highs. Then there was the 400% hike in energy costs, and before that a post-Brexit shortage of abattoir workers causing a backlog of 200,000 pigs on farms. Some UK farmers were forced to cull their pigs: 40,000 were “euthanised” and dumped in the ground. Currently, producers face a loss of circa £30 per pig sold. Their estimated cumulative losses since autumn 2020 is £600 million, according to the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

Unsurprisingly, many pig farmers are voting with their wellies, and exiting the industry. The proof is in the contraction of the national herd. According to Defra’s June survey, the total number of pigs in England decreased by 3% to just over 4.1 million animals, a 20-year low. The figure masks a more disturbing fact: the number of breeding animals — the future of the industry — is down by 17%.

You might think, therefore, that the news that the global food company Danish Crown is building a state-of-the-art bacon plant in Rochdale would bring a festive smile to the face of the nation’s pig farmers. After all, if Danish Crown is investing £100 million, and promising to produce more than 900 tonnes of bacon and gammon a week, they must believe that the domestic industry has a viable future? Alas, no. Jais Valeur, chief executive, has admitted that the plant will mainly process… Danish pigs. Not much of a Christmas present for domestic producers.

About 60% of the pork consumed in the UK already comes from other countries, principally in the EU bloc. Imported pork is cheaper, meaning it pushes down the price of home-reared meat. AHDB data shows that, in the first seven months of 2022, pork imports were up by nearly 80,000 tonnes, around 20%, compared with 2021. (And this is only the figure for registered meat imports; Dover Port Health Authority seized 2.5 tonnes of illegal pork products from 22 vehicles in a single weekend in October.) You might feel that imported pork — as much as 25% cheaper than native product — is a good thing in a cost-of-living crisis. After you bring home the bacon, you can get more bacon. And aren’t animal welfare standards higher on EU farms anyway? This is the implication of the RSPCA’s constant claims that animal welfare will be “lost” now we have left the EU.

Alas, the notion that farm livestock are better off in the EU bloc is a porky pie. Certainly, the Brussels Pig Directive burgeons with imperatives, but animal welfare inside the EU tends to be honoured in the breach rather than the observance. Sow stalls (metal cages) were outlawed in the UK years ago, but the EU still allows it, from the weaning of one litter until the end of the sows’ first four weeks of the next pregnancy. New-born pigs deemed too weak to survive are smashed upon the floor — a lawful killing method according to the EU Slaughter Regulation.

And enforcement of the Pig Directive — which forbids “tail-docking, tooth-clipping and tooth-grinding likely to cause immediate pain and some prolonged pain to pigs” — has become nigh on impossible in EU factory farms. Although tail-docking has been prohibited throughout the EU since 1994, it is routine in all countries in the bloc, with the exception of Finland and Sweden, and depends on the complicity of governments and veterinary services. The European Commission’s own audit found an overwhelming majority of pigs in the EU are tail-docked. France was even called to order by the European Commission in 2020, to no avail: 99% of French pig farms still dock the tails of piglets. It took a French provincial judge, not the Elysée, to even fire a warning shot against the country’s insistence on the practice: in April the criminal court in Moulins fined a pig farm supplying the Herta brand €50,000. The court considered the systematic docking of animals “to be an act of abuse”.

The EU also authorises the feeding of Processed Animal Protein (PAP) to pigs, which may not be to the taste of UK consumers. Indeed, the British government has banned it, since it is though that contaminated meat protein in pig swill started the 2001 Foot-and-Mouth epidemic. These less stringent EU welfare regulations are a direct contributory factor in making EU pig meat cheaper than pork produced here in the UK. But at what cost?

That’s not to say the EU has never intervened actively in pig farming. In fact, in 2019, it used €7.5 million of taxpayers’ money to finance its “Let’s talk about pork” advertisements promoting the continental industry. The campaign, in response to under-35s decreasing their pork consumption over concerns about animal welfare and the environment, aims “to demystify the various information that has been targeting the sector, by showing the conditions of production in the farms with scrupulous respect for the highest standards of animal welfare”. The ad campaign depicts happy, curly-tailed pigs in conditions that are nothing like the reality on the EU’s thousands of factory farms.

Yet, if porcine welfare is superior on UK farms, it is far from ideal. Last year the Government’s Food Standards Agency found that almost 3,000 pigs arrived at abattoirs with broken limbs, emaciation, lameness and prolapses. Hundreds were dead on arrival. Piglets on RSPCA-backed farms, according to The Independent, were given electric shocks, hit, kicked and thrown as they were loaded onto lorries.

The UK, then, will not escape the wider European trend: a downturn in the pig industry caused by factory farming conditions that consumers no longer accept. Here, 60% of sows and nearly all fattening pigs are kept indoors in concrete or slatted floor pens, and are unable to express their natural rooting behaviour. The UK slaughtered about 11 million pigs in 2021; of these a mere 32,000 were qualified for the organic label, meaning the fullest welfare conditions and a free-range, outdoor life.

The treatment of pigs is the pig industry’s real problem, not today’s high grain prices, or the long-term reluctance of supermarkets to pay a fair price or even the numberless failed government promises of aid. Although bacon and sausage sales remain buoyant — due to the great Full English Breakfast, the UK has the highest consumption of bacon per capita in Europe, 3kg of the product per annum — pork consumption overall declined 7.5% between 2014-2019. While pig farmers religiously follow wheat prices, and the stats on All Pig Price (APP), the real stat they need to ponder is the rise of veganism.

According to data by digital tree-planting platform Treedom, of 2,000 people surveyed in December, a fifth ditched turkey and pigs in blankets, opting instead for a plant-based Christmas lunch. And the vast majority of vegans, 89%, say they have made the lifestyle switch because “I think the way animals are farmed and killed for food is cruel”. Retailers are starting to respond to demand: to “fulfil the nation’s hunger for vegan food”, Aldi is launching its biggest range of plant-based food for the forthcoming ‘Veganuary’, the annual much-hyped campaign for a “vegan world”. Aldi is wading into a crowded market; last Veganuary more than 1,540 new vegan products and menus were launched.

If the British pig industry does not want to end up in a slaughterhouse of its own making, it needs to end factory farming, improve welfare to organic levels, and put pigs on a main diet of natural forage and crop waste, rather than soy and cereals that contribute to deforestation and loss of wildlife habitats. The result is happy pigs, and a happier farm balance sheet. (Our pigs, by rootling in woodland, orchards, and crop fields following harvest, have found as much as 50% of their food for free.) This sustainable, free-range and ethical system needs to be safeguarded by the introduction of a ban on the import of all products to welfare standards lower than the UK. Anything less will be putting lipstick on a pig.

John Lewis-Stempel is a farmer and writer on nature and history. His most recent books are The Sheep’s Tale and Nightwalking.